Double bill at Salisbury Studio Theatre

THE prodigiously talented trio of writer John Finnemore, actor Rachel Fletcher and director Lesley Bates are the ingredients for a theatrical recipe made in heaven, and audiences at Salisbury’s Studio Theatre are enjoying their latest iteration in English for Pony Lovers, in a double bill with an abridged-and-then-abridged-again adaptation of Buchan’s The 39 Steps, by Patrick Barlow, for two nights only.

In 2019 BC, Studio Theatre performed Finnemore’s A Flock of Tigers, directed by Lesley and performed by Rachel, and won lots of silverware in drama competitions. This year, they decided on another of Poole Grammar old boy Finnemore’s “Double Acts” plays, English for Pony Lovers – well, yes, he does go in for peculiar titles. And again they triumphed at the Totton Festival of Drama.

English for Pony Lovers has all the hallmarks of Finnemore’s best work (Cabin Pressure is one) It’s set in a bar in a German country town, where senior science teacher Elke has come to meet an English teacher so that she can improve her knowledge of current vernacular English. When a road-weary young woman hefting a massive rucksack turns up, Elke greets her as Lorna, the EFL teacher who has advertised her services on a leaflet. The 55-year old German is surprised at the apparent youth of her new tutor, but is assured by the passive-aggressive Lorna that she is in fact fully qualified and 28 years old. Trouble is, Lorna is none too good at remembering her age, which, in the course of about 40 minutes, reduces to 26, 24 and then to 18.

Elke, of course, is trained in the very strict structure of language, as all Germans are. She knows much more about tenses (there are 12 of them in English) and their uses than most of us, and certainly way more than Lorna has ever heard of. In a few short minutes, Lorna has instructed her (wrongly) about the use of various words, and Elke has begun to smell a rat.

But all is not quite as it seems, as Elke’s thirst for knowledge seems to be centred on the sex life of My Little Pony. Hmmm? There are more hidden agendae than you could shake a frankfurter at, and the play explores them hilariously and with blinding insights into the world we inhabit today. I won’t ever think of gap years in the same way!

Rachel Fletcher deservedly won best actress for her perfectly timed, brilliantly nuanced performance as Elke, and Studio newcomer Aine Tiernan is the ideal Lorna, a nervy, defensive and insecure young woman trying to find her way into an increasingly confusing adulthood.

The (even more abridged) 39 Steps is a hilarious dash through all the best known setpiece scenes of John Buchan’s famous spy thriller, with Kris Hamilton-Brain as Richard Hannay and Rachel Fletcher, her daughter Emilia (pictured left), George Goulding and Stew Taylor as everyone else. There’s the dash across the train roof as it crosses the Forth Bridge, the peculiar innkeepers, the faux policemen, the mysterious blonde spy, the English Rose, the mad German professor and assorted sheep to keep the audience amused and wide awake for the whole riotous journey.

There are many more John Finnemore plays to be performed, and I am looking forward to seeing them in Salisbury.



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