John Osborne’s A Subject of Scandal and Concern was written in 1960 as a TV drama starring Richard Burton. Now adapted by Jimmy Walters of Proud Haddock, the play gets its long-awaited London debut in the intimate setting of the Finborough Theatre.
Based on true events, A Subject of Scandal and Concern tells the story of George Jacob Holyoake, the last man to stand trial for blasphemy in England. On his way from Birmingham to Bristol in 1842, the young teacher stops in Cheltenham to give a lecture, where his determination to speak his mind will prove to be his downfall. Despite the efforts of a parade of lawyers, journalists and churchmen to break him, however, Holyoake maintains a steadfast resistance, even when it ends up costing him everything.
Jamie Muscato gives a riveting performance as the unfortunate Holyoake, an unassuming figure who overcomes a severe stammer to make his case with passion and conviction. It’s a testament to Muscato’s presence and performance that even during his lengthy courtroom speech, we still hang on his every word. He’s joined by a versatile cast of five, who take on a multitude of roles; Edmund Digby-Jones impresses with an astonishingly fast and fluent delivery of the indictment against Holyoake, while Doron Davidson plays no less than five characters, each with a different accent and personality.
In addition to playing multiple roles within the story, the cast also constantly rearrange the simple wooden frames that make up Philip Lindley’s set, to become a jail cell, a courtroom, a kitchen and, most memorably, the ever-changing road from Birmingham to Bristol. There’s something almost mesmerising about the graceful movement of the actors as they move the pieces around, and it gives the play a dynamic feel, as if it’s taking place on a much larger stage.
Much like its title, A Subject of Scandal and Concern is a very wordy play; it’s worth getting hold of a copy of the play text to read through afterwards if you can. But what could have been a pretty heavy hour is broken up by moments of humour, and a vein of quiet sarcasm runs throughout the play. The authority figures ranged against Holyoake are all faintly ridiculous, but there’s a note of censure against the protagonist too, particularly towards the end of the play. As explained by the narrator in his closing lines, the play doesn’t seek to provide answers; this is not a story with a moral, and we must draw our own conclusions. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating tale, which still resonates today in its references to freedom of speech and the influence of religion in everyday life. This buried treasure has finally seen the light of day, and it was well worth the wait.
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