Review: The Straw Chair (Finborough Theatre)

Sue Glover’s play, revived for the London fringe, is set on Hirta, the largest island on St Kilda, and takes inspiration from the story of Rachel Erskine, Lady Grange, in the eighteenth century.

This is an intense piece in which the whistle of the wind and the roar of the sea is relentless (sound design by Anna Short). Food is fish and sea birds, beds are made up on damp stone slabs.

When the minister Aneas and his wife Isabel arrive from the mainland in 1740 to bring the word of Christ to the islanders, they find themselves within the custom and practice of heathen gods and quaint tradition.

Lady Rachel is as wild as her surroundings, faded in glamour and trapped in mind and body. Her tales of oppression and abduction strike a chord with young bride Isabel, just ten days married on her arrival on Hirta.

With themes of subservience, power, naivety, sexual awakening, alcohol, risk, religion and love of the land, The Straw Chair has a lot to cover. The chair itself is both symbolic of status and a very real reminder of a harsh life.

Finlay Bain and Rori Hawthorn in The Straw Chair

Glover’s storytelling encompasses many off-stage scenes both in the past and present: the young men playing daredevil to charm their would-be brides, the dancing with the laird of the isle, the carnality of the outdoors.

Siobhan Redmond brings a sense of tattered glamour to Lady Rachel in her matted hair decorated with feathers and her distressed best gown. Howling in the night like Lear barred from his home, she is a pitiful figure but also a tower of strength.

Finlay Bain and Rori Hawthorn convince as the man of God and the girl who has never been anywhere other than a house on the mainland. Their arrival brings both hope and disruption.

Bain’s Aneas is an uptight soldier of Christ but still has his doubts; as Isabel, Hawthorn (who grew up on Skye and also acts as music director for the atmospheric songs and choruses we hear) wants to be a devoted wife but has fire in her belly.

Rori Hawthorn and Siobhan Redmond in The Straw Chair

As Oona, who acts as Lady Rachel’s servant and model islander, Jenny Lee gives a rounded performance which is crucial and touching. People like her were surely still on St Kilda when the last inhabitant left for the mainland in 1930.

Polly Creed’s direction is assured, taking in every inch of Alex Marker’s set, where pathways lead up to God and out to nowhere. We can imagine the moss growing and the cold wind blasting the faces of the islanders.

The Straw Chair is an intriguing piece of historical drama set in the wilds of Scotland which touches on the plight of political prisoners and the rights of women.

You can see it at the Finborough Theatre until 14 May 2022 – tickets here. For more about Lady Grange, there is a detailed programme note or go here.

Image credit: Carla Joy Evans