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Review: The Passing of the Third Floor Back (Finborough Theatre)

Jerome K Jerome's play offers a heartwarming, Christmassy night out.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Anna Mottram and Alex Knox in The Passing of the Third Floor Back
© Solomon Lawson

The immediate and very gratifying success of his 1889 comic masterpiece Three Men in a Boat was, as author Jerome K Jerome wrote, the work by which 'the public persists in remembering me'.

Yet Jerome was also an actor, essayist and dramatist, with all 19 of his plays enjoying respectable runs in London and the US.

Of these, The Passing of the Third Floor Back was the most celebrated, with successful stage and film versions. Director Jonny Kelly's production at the Finborough Theatre is a warm-hearted and emotional revival of this play about a houseful of miserable people who rediscover their moral compasses, and thereby create new happiness for themselves and each other.

An air of claustrophobic discontent fills a Bloomsbury lodging house. The grasping landlady, the splendidly waspish Anna Mottram, cheats her tenants, themselves brutally described on the cast list as Slut, Shrew, Snob, Bully, Rogue and so on, with a maid of all work who's clearly in danger from the Cad.

But everything changes with the arrival of a mysterious passer-by (Alexander Knox), who wants to rent the 'Third Floor Back' room. With the smooth, calming air of an intuitive psychiatrist, he approaches the other tenants one by one and gradually unpicks their lives, revealing the transformative powers they have within themselves.

Knox is suitably ethereal as the all-seeing hero, whose gentle persistence ends with a city rogue becoming an honest dairy farmer, a painted lady scraping off the rouge and accepting her age gracefully, a cad becoming an entertainer… the list goes on until the entire household is – literally – bathed in sunshine, created by lighting designer Robbie Butler.

Live music comes from harpist Lizzie Faber, who delicately and imaginatively weaves an otherworldly atmosphere through her sensitive playing.

Designer Jasmine Swan cleverly creates the stifling sense of entrapment with a glowing set dominated by sealed beaten-metal windows, and she dresses the tenants with classic Edwardian style.

The play is a fairytale of sorts, and its pre Nanny McPhee message that happiness blossoms when we discover the redeeming powers of honesty, consideration, and love could prove a bit saccharine for some to swallow. Jerome himself may have been hedging his bets by subtitling it An Idle Fancy. Nevertheless it's performed with sincerity and conviction, and at this time of year in particular, this ‘idle fancy' makes a heartwarming, Christmassy night out.

The Passing of the Third Floor Back runs at the Finborough Theatre until 22 December.