‘Third Finger Left Hand’ at Trafalgar Studios

Written by Dermot Canavan, Third Finger Left Hand, is a warm hearted two hander, a recollection of growing up in Britain in the 1970s with an unpredictably violent father.  It is evidently closely based on the author’s own family, and shows two sisters, Grace (Amanda Daniels) and Niamh (Imogen Stubbs), reminiscing about their lives, and how their shared experiences of their family both brings them together and drives them apart.  The scenes unfold against a backdrop of the burgeoning Northern Soul scene, and with the sisters’ love of dancing, especially to the eponymous Martha Reeves and the Vandellas track.

The 1970s is conjured through immediately recognisable references which still manage to be different from the more usual nostalgic topics of curly-wurlies and space hoppers: instead there is the aroma of Smitty and Charley blended with Vosene and the absolute necessity of watching Top of the Pops on a Thursday night if you were to be able to talk about anything at school on Friday.

The focus of the piece is on the two sisters, repeatedly sifting through a box of old photographs of them together over the decades; there are laughter and tears and finishing each other’s sentences and singing the songs they remember, and it all has the feeling of watching a genuine conversation.  There is little distance, and not much other plot than that of shared experiences, a series of cleverly fit together vignettes; the rule abiding sibling may have come to the realisation that being ‘good’ had done her no favours, while the more glamorous and adventurous one reaps an even more tragic end.

What made it a truly engaging experience were the performances.  In the tiny Studio 2, where the performers are no more than an arm’s length away from the audience, with only a sofa, a hat stand, a couple of cushions and a spare cardigan, they transformed themselves from arguing adults to children riding imaginary horses to the theme tune of White Horses, and to teenagers doing synchronised dancing to Motown hits; and they showed the traumatic physical violence which had marked their home life.  And at the end, I don’t think I  was the only one wiping a tear away.

It’s probably suboptimal to be in the reviewing world to be writing about a play that had its final performance yesterday, but then again, it may return in this or another guise…

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