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The Return of Benjamin Lay | Finborough Theatre

2023. A Quaker meeting house on the Finborough Road – or is it a theatre?

Benjamin Lay – shepherd, sailor, prophet, and the British Empire’s first revolutionary abolitionist – returns from the grave almost three hundred years after his death, as feisty and unpredictable as ever.

A four foot tall “Little David” confronts the “Goliath” of slavery once again as he pleads to be readmitted into the Quaker community that has disowned him and who still believe him to be dangerous. Now, “trembling at the edge of playing God himself”, how far will Benjamin go as he stares down his accusers?

Acclaimed american actor Mark Povinelli made his London stage debut in this incredible one-man play, and showed a true masterclass in storytelling. The Finborough Theatre is the perfect venue for this show, which provided an intimate and immersive setting which really made me feel like I was there at the Quaker meeting with Benjamin, not in a theatre. This was helped by the amazing set design by Riccardo Hernandez and Isobel Nicolson, which wasn't your typical stage set-up. Rather than covering up the walls like most pub-theatres do, they left the natural walls as they are with huge windows to the outside at the back of the stage. This provided natural light with walls and windows that wouldn't be out of place in the setting of the play. There were a few set pieces, including a table and a ladder, which were used really effectively. Alongside the natural light and set, there was also a great use of sound and lighting (sound design by John Leonard and lighting design by Anthony Doran). This helped set the different scenes, and sound lighting was used especially well in the scenes where Benjamin is at sea on a ship, with sound effects of waves crashing, seagulls and intense blue lighting.

Mark not only played Benjamin Lay, but lots of other characters throughout the play completely by himself. He didn't leave the stage for the whole seventy minutes, and had me captivated throughout. He used different props, voices and gestures really well to show the different characters without having to change costume, which was clever and helped tell the story. The show is directed by RSC Honorary Associate Director Ron Daniels, who did an incredible job - his direction with Mark's amazing acting made me interested and engaged throughout. My attention never dipped during the seventy minutes, and it felt like it went very fast, which shows great storytelling.

The script continues a unique decade-long collaboration between multi-award-winning playwright Naomi Wallace and multi-award-winning historian Marcus Rediker, and was very strong. There was a great mix of laugh out loud moments with heartfelt and heartbreaking moments that really made me think. The script both celebrates dwarfism and shows the struggles that come from it, including people staring and making comments, which made me think about things I hadn't before. There was also a lot of audience interaction as part of the script, which helps add to the immersive and initmate nature that I spoke about above. This included asking audience members questions, and Mark as Benjamin going around the audience handing out flyers (which is part of the story), giving one to each audience member in the auditorium.

The Return of Benjamin Lay is an immersive and intimate masterclass in storytelling, led by an actor at the top of his game, and a must-see show I would definitely recommend to all. For more tickets and information, you can follow this link here.


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review


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