Dealing with a plethora of present-day issues in an Edwardian context is The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs, this week’s offering at the B-T Studio. The play sees the story of a woman – Albert Nobbs – whose only means of finding work in Edwardian Dublin is to dress as a man. In a slightly improbable plot twist, Albert finds herself in bed with another woman existing as a man – Hubert Page – whose happy marriage with another woman sets Nobbs, constrained even by Edwardian standards, dreaming.
Nobbs’ encounter with Hubert helps her to rediscover the personality that she had kept sublimated for so long. She begins obsessively to fantasise about finding the same happiness as Hubert. Unfortunately the women that she chooses to marry are painfully unsuitable and Nobbs is never able to escape the body in which society has trapped her.
Emilie Finch takes on a demanding role that won Glenn Close awards when she played it on screen. Finch’s touching performance brings out the innocence and impressionability of Nobbs, who focuses her longing for freedom from class and social constraints on the women around her. Her inability to woo Helen is made all the more painful by Helen’s evident cruelty and fickleness, portrayed excellently by Katherine Cowles.
The play is framed in a dialogue between two men in an implied gentleman’s club context. One magistrate (Alex Blakes) recounts the story of Nobbs to his friend (Theo Chevallier). Nobbs’ non-speaking role until her meeting with the painter-decorator Hubert Page – played with great sympathy by Olivia Madin – emphasises the extent to which she has hidden her true self. Other ensemble performances in the play are strong with Tom Jackson’s performance as Nobbs’ intimidating love-rival worthy of particular note.
The play’s directors, Alexandra Greenfield and Vanessa Lee, are highly to be commended. They made a wonderfully inventive use of a studio space that can so easily feel cramped. Sitting actors in the audience made the space feel larger than usual – a triumph given its small size. The set was sparse and yet gave a good sense of the mustiness of an Edwardian lodging house.
In short, I think that this small and perfectly developed play has much to recommend it. Like one of the vignettes in Joyce’s Dubliners the play’s mood is ambiguous – amusing at times, but underpinned by the melancholy of the entrapped central character. The play’s close emphasises the arduousness of social entrapment in any age. Whilst the play and its performances were easily good enough to have made it onto a larger stage, the inventive treatment of the BT studio space meant that this was hardly to be desired.
The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs is playing at the B-T studio from the 3rd to the 7th March.
PHOTO/Albert Nobbs publicity