It is impossible to tell when Peter Nichols might have written Lingua Franca: at any time in the past thirty years, as it follows the Nichols alter ego, Steven Flowers, from National Service duty and revues in Malaysia with Stanley Baxter and Kenneth Williams – the material of his unbeatable Privates on Parade – to his experience in a British language school in Florence in the mid 1950s.
The play surfaced in a student production at RADA last year, and the same director, Michael Gieleta, has assembled an outstanding cast for this Finborough revamp: Chris New as the Berlitz virgin, holding up cutlery (“Is this a knife”; “No, this is a fork”) to a classroom of insolent “bambini”; Natalie Walter as the siren German, Heidi, whom he seduces in a rush of revenge for the war; and Charlotte Randle as the plainer English girl, Peggy, who carries a torch for him and, as it happens, a knife, too.
Using a mixture of direct address, cross-cutting dialogue, poetry and music hall songs (Steven gets the unseen pupils singing “I do like to be beside the seaside”), Nichols weaves a good love story while also evoking a range of reflections on the aftermath of the war and the way the world is going (to the dogs, on the whole).
The teachers in the school are a rootless, unhappy bunch, from Rula Lenska’s elegant Russian Jewish aristocrat to Abigail McKern’s bumptious Aussie lesbian and Ian Gelder’s wistful old relic in a summer suit and panama hat. The school is run by handsome, two-timing Gennaro (Enzo Cilenti), who manipulates the prettier teachers into the lodgings he rents out, and his bed.
There’s a flare-up in the school and an onstage riot with bloodshed. You certainly feel the Florentine heat in the Finborough; and designer James Macnamara provides authentic, projected city views and a final lingering look at the Masaccio frescoes of Adam and Eve expelled from Eden.
The play seems stilted in the first act, and New is not totally convincing as a barbed-tongued lady-killer (he’s a bit short, and has too serene a stage energy). But it’s wonderful to see a Nichols play again after far too long, and he recreates a period in his own lifetime, and in Europe, that is shot through with trademark biliousness and witty, double-edged humour.