Though it’s considered to be a Canadian classic, it’s somehow taken nearly 40 years for David French’s Salt-Water Moon to reach the UK, directed by Peter Kavanagh at the Finborough. Part of the semi-autobiographical “Mercer series”, this gentle two-hander introduces us to Jacob (Joseph Potter), newly returned to his Newfoundland home after a year in Toronto, and Mary (Bryony Miller), the sweetheart he’s come to win back. But while it’s first and foremost a story about the rekindling of lost love, the play has a surprising depth to it as it explores the complex reasons behind both characters’ actions, both past and present.
One year ago, Jacob left home abruptly without saying goodbye. In his absence, desperate to make a home for herself and her younger sister, Mary’s accepted the marriage proposal of a wealthy neighbour. It’s a match that will ensure her future, but when Jacob swaggers back into her life one moonlit night a few weeks before the wedding, all her plans are thrown up in the air. Bryony Miller’s Mary has a fragile dignity throughout, resolutely gazing into the middle distance as Jacob tries every weapon in his arsenal – charm, reproach, comedy, emotional blackmail – to break down her defences. Though Joseph Potter’s portrayal is undeniably charming, this dogged approach is not always comfortable to watch, and while the pair’s eventual reconciliation always feels inevitable, it’s by no means clear that taking him back is the wisest decision. It also feels, as the play concludes, like much is still left unsaid about the reasons for his departure; while Mary clearly remembers the events that indirectly prompted his decision, the audience is given only sketchy details, and even Mary gets little explanation as to how or why one led to the other. This is all the more stark considering the way other stories are told over the course of the play, with a level of detail that can at times feel a little awkward, like it’s more for the audience’s benefit than it is for Mary’s.
The structure of the play is on paper very simple, consisting of one single 75-minute dialogue between the two former lovers, during which it’s made clear that nobody’s going anywhere until the question of Jacob and Mary is resolved once and for all. Mim Houghton’s set, a gorgeous recreation of the night sky above, also gives little away – and yet there’s a whole world that surrounds the characters, and while we may not see the Newfoundland shoreline or encounter any other members of the small-town community, they all come vividly to life through David French’s evocative, often lyrical text. For those of us whose only knowledge of Newfoundland is from watching Come From Away, it’s a fascinating – if brief – insight into a land with a culture, history, and yes, accent that’s all its own.
Though only a short play, Salt-Water Moon, anchored by two excellent performances and the intimacy of the Finborough, succeeds in drawing us in to Jacob and Mary’s story so that we become invested (one way or another) in the outcome. Some questions are left unanswered as the actors take their well-deserved bows, but the story has enough of a resolution that it doesn’t feel unsatisfying – instead we’re left wanting more, and that’s never a bad thing.
Salt-Water Moon continues at the Finborough Theatre until 28th January.