The Passing of the Third Floor Back review at Finborough Theatre, London – ‘an Edwardian curiosity’
Jerome K Jerome’s name is indelibly linked to the uproarious Three Men in a Boat, but his 1908 play The Passing of the Third Floor Back was a long-running hit in the West End.
Described as an ‘idle fancy’, it’s a period piece with an unusual structure: a lengthy prologue introduces the assorted ne’er-do-wells that inhabit a grotty Bloomsbury boarding house, followed by the main section in which a new resident – the compelling yet foreboding Alexander Knox – interacts with each tenant, then an epilogue showing how each has changed for the better.
While the initial stereotypes are keenly observed – and later broadened into full characters – the sequential interactions between them resemble a series of ever-shifting tableaus rather than a fully fledged play. The candle-pilfering antics of “painted lady” Miss Kite are gleefully played out by Paddy Nevin, as the sneaky landlady (Anna Mottram) tops up the whisky decanter with cold tea and the maid (shifty-eyed Ella Dunlop) waters the milk down.
One by one, conniving shysters, haughty pretenders and hapless lovers meet the mysterious new lodger, every one somehow convinced that they have met somewhere before. Here lies the crux of the piece: who is this man who confronts them with their past?
The burnished, soot-stained walls of Jasmine Swan’s set lend the space a crepuscular cosiness, while harpist Lizzie Faber delicately underscores the action throughout. Every so often, a shaft of sunlight pierces the gloom, denoting the metaphorical enlightenment of each character.
Quaintly absorbing, this isn’t quite a forgotten masterpiece, but in prizing acts of kindness towards others, it harks back to values that feel sadly lacking today.