The Wind & The Rain ★★★★☆

Nearly 100 years ago, playwright Merton Hodge wrote this hugely successful drama, which played over 1,000 performances at the St Martin’s, the Queen’s (now Sondheim) and the Savoy theatre. It was televised in 1959, starring Alan Bates (Psycho), and was revived in 1960 at the Liverpool Playhouse with John Thaw playing one of the minor characters. And having been neglected for half a century, it’s back for a limited run at the Finborough Theatre.

The play takes place in the living room at Mrs McFie’s boarding house in Edinburgh over a five year period. Charles Tritton is a naïve 18 year old London arriving in Edinburgh to study medicine. The audience is quickly introduced to three other medical students, all living in the same digs. All are well-rounded, developed characters and we follow them as they study to complete their medical training.

The Finborough Theatre is not your run-of-the-mill theatre. It’s adjacent to Brompton cemetery (stunningly creepy at night, when you come out the theatre), and you have to climb stairs past a building site to get into the theatre. It’s tiny; three rows of seats surround the stage, and the bar consists of a member of staff offering white wine, red wine or apple juice from two bottles and a carton balanced on a tiny windowsill on an outside stairwell. The staging is claustrophobic and the actors stand, at points, mere inches away from audience members looking into their faces, evoking a stuffy atmosphere entirely reminiscent of a small boarding house living room.

The play follows Charles as he comes to realise he isn’t in love with the girl at home he was destined to marry, and instead has fallen slowly in love with a nearby sculptor who is visiting from New Zealand. The intensity of his work ethic is shown when he proudly opens a box of human bones he has brought from Paris to help him study, at which point one of the other students opens a cupboard and human bones just fall out, as the older, more cynical student says Charles is “bringing coals to Sheffield”. Bones crop up regularly, with a telegram saying ‘Bones and I arrived safely’, triggering memories of Jim Kirk reporting his status to Mr Spock.

All actors deliver solid performances; there is not a weak performer amongst them. Mark Lawrence (played by Gilbert Raymond) is the charming gigolo, who doesn’t study and never passes his exams.

But three actors stand out – curiously the three female characters in a play which is fundamentally about male medical students. Jennie Lee plays Mrs McFie, the elderly, intense, unsmiling boarding-house owner. She encapsulates pathos, shuffling around while fetching coal from the cellar at the insistence of the entitled 20-something medical students, wandering in and out of the set like a ghostly prison warden.

The main love interest, Anne Hargreaves (Naomi Preston-Low, above), is the sculptor whom Charles Tritton falls for. Preston-Low develops the character over the five year timespan perfectly, playing a smiley, shy, awkward introvert when they first meet, growing into a strong, intense, loyal and loving woman who understands her emotional needs and can articulate and act on them as time progresses. Helen Reuben does a marvellous job portraying the insincere and unlikeable Jill, the girl whom Tritton was expected to marry, alternating between charging around the stage in a dominating whirl of flirtatious energy, periods of quiet reflection when she realises how vacuous her day to day 1930s flapper existence truly is, and anger when evening plans don’t quite go her way.

Why is this play called ‘The Wind & the Rain’? It’s a song at the end of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which Anne Hargreaves sings to Charles Tritton. But the title feels shoehorned in, with little relevance to the plot.

You can tell this was written in the 1930s. It has charming touches which don’t exist in period dramas written in more modern times. Charles Tritton announces he found out about Mrs McFie’s boarding house from someone he met in London, so he wrote to Mrs McFie and she wrote back offering a room (AirBnB is definitely an improvement). There are the slightest hints of homoeroticism which are never developed beyond whispers in the air. One male medical student comments that “Learning anatomy on her [a famous actress] would be a pleasure”, a comment which would be unacceptable in a modern production. A conversation on the nature of love versus sex is uncomfortable, not because of any graphic detail, but because it feels like the playwright was scared of saying anything that could have offended the audience of the day.

A wonderful, endearing moment in the play is when three of the medical students are waiting to learn the results of their final exams. Will they qualify as doctors or not? They describe the torment of waiting around a board outside the exam hall in the rain to wait for the results to be posted (and, instead, they have paid someone to hand-deliver an envelope with the results to their boarding house). No member of Gen Z will know that feeling, but this reviewer remembers all too well that awful wait in the school hall for O level and A level results to be displayed on a board for the whole school to see. Students today don’t have it easier (with the results arriving by email), but at least they get to discover their results in the privacy of their bedroom.

A small play in a small theatre is never going to rival the big West End shows. But I’d much rather pay £20 to see this intimate, well-written and well-performed period piece than £15 to sit in a cinema.

The Wind & the Rain is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 5 August 2023