Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City has been put on in the perfect setting. The Morris room in the Oxford Union exactly replicates the experience of wandering into a forbidden (and prestigious) building – for a start a security guard demanded to see my membership card as I wandered in. What’s more, the room itself is decorated exactly as you’d imagine – one of the central trio, the earnest Michael (Dominic Ballard) exclaims that he has never felt a carpet so luxurious (“it’s like a mattress”), and the idea of this eclectic mix of protestors wandering into the Guildhall and coming upon the mayor’s parlour is perfectly brought to life in this room.
Unfortunately, the rest of the technical production failed to live up to this standard. Perhaps it is because we are used to being promised shows that are ‘near-professional’ by overzealous student directors and their teams of marketers, but there was something about the lack of attention to costume (one ‘expert’ appearing in court was in jeans) and other details that undermined the excellence of the location. Having previously stage-managed, I am aware that props are near-impossible to source perfectly, but in a moment where a character is stroking something and exclaiming that the leather is luxurious, it only serves to undermine the show if laughs are raised by the fact that the item in question (a table) is made entirely of wood.
The play follows the story of a group of Irish protestors, in the 1970s, who in blind chaos during police intervention accidentally find themselves in the most prestigious building in the city. The play opens with the sight of their dead bodies on stage and the plot, told through flashbacks and witnesses, brought forward by the stern judge (Ellen Gould), seeks to recreate the events that preceded their slaughter.
The acting was for the most part of a high-calibre, with Andrew Wynn-Owen’s portrayal of Skinner a particular delight, perfectly alternating between seeming mischievous and sinister. Though the Irish accents were a mixed bag, they were nonetheless well-attempted and sustained fairly painlessly. The direction was strong and, though the space was small it was used well. The lack of tiered seating means that those at the back may perhaps have suffered from an impaired view, but those of us lucky enough to be in the front row were delightfully confronted by an intimacy that was never invasive, but always inclusive.
Though the large cast were clearly enthusiastic and fairly talented, they seemed – often – to have been cast without thought to their appearance. Henry Hudson’s youthful and epicene beauty was hardly appropriate for the role of a solemn Irish priest and, though one of the finest performances of the play, Rebecca Banatvala’s Winbourne was not only inappropriately styled but moreover evidently a male part. The central trio held together the play well. There was, unfortunately, something slightly painful in the repetitive use of “young fella” from Lily (Niamh Furey). Furey is lucky enough to look the youngest of the three but unlucky enough for this to undermine her portrayal of a much older woman (such are the follies of student drama, unfortunately).
At the time of writing, The Freedom of the City has completely sold out, so I can’t urge you to buy tickets – but those of you who are going, well done. It is certainly a production worth seeing.
**** (FOUR STARS)