Robert Tanitch reviews John Ferguson at Finborough Theatre, London SW10
St John Ervine (1883-1971), a prolific Irish playwright, critic and biographer, has long been forgotten. The Finborough Theatre, who revived his play, Mixed Marriages, in 2011, has come up with another strong drama by him.
John Ferguson, premiered in Dublin in 1915 and last performed in London at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1920, is a first-rate old-fashioned melodrama and deserves to be much better known.
The play is set in County Down, Ulster in the 1880’s. Ferguson, an old man, his wife and their grown-up son and daughter cannot pay the mortgage on their farm and are about to be evicted by a cruel landlord. A local shop-owner offers to pay the mortgage if his daughter will marry him. When she reneges on her acceptance, a series of tragic events is set in motion.
The sick paterfamilias (Ciaran McIntyre) puts his trust completely in the Bible, convinced that whatever happens to them, it is God’s will and everything will be all right in the end. His Christianity is sorely tested. Contrary to what the Psalms say, joy does not come in the morning for him and his family
The daughter’s suitor (Paul Reid) is a decent young man, genuinely in love with her; but he is so fatally weak and cowardly that he is contemptible even to himself. But will he be hanged for a murder he has not committed?
Ferguson’s wife (Veronica Quilligan) has the play’s most chilling line when she accuses her daughter (Zoe Rainey) of being the murderer, since if she had accepted the proposal of marriage and kept her word, there would have been no murder.