Theatre Review







Icarus Theatre Collective presents

The Time of Your Life


by William Saroyan

Director by Max Lewendel


Finborough Theatre

26 November – 20 December, 2008





A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


This fly on the wall, panoramic play, set in a waterfront honky-tonk in San Francisco in 1939 features a kaleidoscope of characters, each with their own little dramas to relate through the stories they tell to one another. For this production, Icarus places the audience in with the action, for within the cosy confines of the Finborough Theatre, viewers have the choice of either sitting on the benches along the walls or, at one of the tables with a tiffany lamp on it in Nick’s friendly, but seedy bar.

William Saroyan was the first American playwright to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Award. Looking back over the lingering resonance of the words of one of his bar-room philosophers, Joe, archly played by Alistair Cumming with just the right amount of easy resignation, it’s easy to understand why:

In the time of your life, live – so in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed...Be the inferior of no man, nor of any man be the superior.  Remember that everyman is a variation of yourself.
Saroyan’s parents were Armenian immigrants, so perhaps that is the reason why his first generation American words almost seem to be reflective of Lincoln’s quote that if ‘treat a man as what he could be, then he’ll become that’, and in a sense, to also reflect the down at heel awareness of many people in his family’s adopted country during the era of the Great Depression. Nick, bartender and owner of the honky-tonk the play is set in doesn’t run a ‘swell’ joint, but at least he’s employed, and during the course of the play, several people approach him in the hopes of gaining employment through him. The lingering joblessness of 1939 gives pause for reflection as we begin what appears to be just the beginning of a worldwide era of joblessness across the entire Western world in 2008/9.
As we entered the theatre, we passed right through Nick’s honky-tonk, or ‘Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant and Entertainment Palace at the food of Embarcadero,’ as it says in the play, with its 1930’s wooden jukebox, rudimentary pinball machine (5 cents a game), padded stools, chairs and tables with colourful tiffany lamps and clear glass ashtrays (remember when they were everywhere?), and, bar, upon which a disgruntled looking sailor was draped, alongside a distinguished looking goateed man in a suit, a bookish type, I mused. At one of the tables near the centre a rather dapper looking fellow sat, on his own, polishing off a large bottle of champagne.


The scene set, the action begins as the characters begin to reveal furtive details of their lives to one other. As people drift through the swinging doors of Nick’s saloon, the audience learns about them, sometimes quickly, but more often, gradually, through their stories - stories of desperation, desire, dreams and decay, weaving a rich tapestry for the audience to alternately savour, laugh at and reflect upon. Joe appears to have an endless stream of money; where does he get it from? Likeable big lug Tom is in Joe’s debt and if he’s not up front about why, Joe’s there to remind him. Kitty Duval used to be a burlesque star...or was she just a two dollar whore? Blick’s as mean a vice cop as ever featured in any film...but what’s he really after? The newsboy sells papers but he’s got a secret ambition. Nick acts tough, but he’s running the joint, so he’s gotta be, and so on, through many a life and many a tale, some of them sad, others wryly funny.


All of the twenty seven actors in this fine production of Saroyan’s intriguing play acquit themselves convincingly, and its setting is well though out, with apt period details and music and, the ups and downs of the action.  Just as one would expect in a barroom setting, one character continues with his activity, such as playing a game of pinball, telling a joke or looking deep into the eyes of a strange but beautiful woman while the others similarly get on with what they were doing, and all of it is believable, thanks to the astute direction of Max Lewendel.  Designer Christopher Hone, Lighting Designer Matthew Newbury, Sound Designer Joseph Thorpe, Costume Designer Natasha Ward, Stage Manager Bekah Wachenfeld and their respective assistants have all done their homework.
In addition to the central champagne drinking character, Joe as portrayed by Alistair Cumming, other stand outs in this huge (especially for a fifty seater) cast include Matthew Rowland Roberts as Joe’s young friend, bumbling, likeable Tom, Maeve Malley-Ryan as dreamy Kitty Duval, Brett Findlay as philosophical bartender Nick, Robin Dunn as reminiscing, six shooting Kit Carson and Gwilym Lloyd in the role of Blick, as evil a vice cop as you’d ever encounter in any B movie of that era.


The Finborough is known for featuring revivals of classic plays which are all too often overlooked these days and given the uncertain times we live in today, The Time of Your Life seems more topical than one might have thought it might be a mere few years ago. Hats off to Icarus for deciding to put on such an ambitious and intriguing production and full marks to all concerned for doing it so well.



Finborough Theatre
118 Finborough Road
London SW10 9ED

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0844 847 1652



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