It might be his first outing as a writer for stage and over half a century old but there are unmistakable premonitions of his later – and darker – works in Peter Shaffer’s Five Finger Exercise.
Just like the beleaguered Strangs in Equus, we’re presented with an aspirational snob of a mother, an emotionally stunted father, and a dysfunctional young son. While Clive Harrington’s (Iain Ridley) torment may pale into insignificance compared with that of the horse-mutilating Alan Strang, Shaffer’s embryonic angst-ridden youth shows potential to become something even darker. In the more enlightened 21st Century, Clive’s latent homosexuality seems trivial and barely worthy of note but, in 1958, it would have been the thing of unbelievable scandal to a middle class family.
Perhaps a little less palatable, there are alarming hints of incestuous leanings too, between mother Louise and Clive, and Clive and his sister, Pamela. To add to the emotional quagmire, Clive, Louise, and Pamela all have the hots for German tutor Walter Langer, who’s lodging with the family at their Suffolk bolt-hole.
Five Finger Exercise isn’t perfect. Its dialogue and ambience are dated. It lacks pace in places but this is due to the young Shaffer’s story-telling rather than Richard Frost’s direction.
Ann Wenn sparkles as Louise, all A-line skirts and clipped vowels. She’s the sort of woman who wouldn’t dream of appearing in front of her family with a hair out of place and is a formidable presence, though with a vulnerability that gives the character a three-dimensional aspect.
Mike Shaw’s Stanley Harrington doesn’t quite know his place. He’s rather too genteel to be the bootstrapped, self-made businessman he claims to be, but any other approach would have the audience wondering what Louise would ever have seen in him besides his money. Nevertheless, a robust enough performance.
While Holly Jones portrays the excruciatingly spoiled younger sibling, Pamela, with conviction and skill, one wonders why Shaffer included the character in the first place. She squeals and flounces her way through the piece, superfluous to requirements, and little more than a contrived weapon for Stanley to use against her tutor.
As Clive and Walter respectively, Ridley and Peter Hoggart work perfectly together, Clive the whining mummy’s boy (whom she gratingly refers by the French diminutive Jou-Jou) and Walter the reserved and ever-perfectly mannered German, who hides a few dark secrets of his own.
Five Finger Exercise is interesting as a study of an established writer’s early offerings but it might be considered rather pedestrian by modern standards. In saying that, an enjoyable enough two hours with a family whose failings will make most of us take a slightly more realistic perspective of our own lots.