We always go dancing together, don’t we?
Based on writer Dermot Canavan’s recollections of his own childhood in 1970s Preston, particularly the turbulent relationship between his two elder sisters, on the surface Third Finger, Left Hand is a trip down memory lane, rich with nostalgia, as we are reminded of day trips to Blackpool, Fray Bentos, Bunty annuals and the Northern soul music of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Yet there is also a lot of grit and substance in Canavan’s tale of two estranged sisters trying to rebuild their relationship in the wake of a family tragedy.
Eldest sister Niamh (Imogen Stubbs) is the rebel, the one who would read Fab 208, talk to boys on the corner, sneak out to Wigan dance hall and eventually fall pregnant while still in her teens. Sensible Grace despaired of Niamh (‘you were the oldest but always acted like the youngest’) and felt second best. Yet she also idolised her older sister and would cover for her without a second thought, though the consequences were devastating.
Both actresses are tremendous in two surprisingly physical roles that require them to play not only themselves but also various friends and family members as, poring over a recently rediscovered box of old family photographs, they reminisce about the past. Stubbs and Daniels sweep the audience along with them, and we are there as Niamh teaches the rest of her siblings how to dance, as the children eat fish and chips in front of Top of the Pops, as they bury family pets, and when both are savagely beaten by a father whom they thought was ‘magnificent’, if only from a distance. Stubbs moves effortlessly from childhood through teenage flirtation and dodgy 70s disco moves to a middle-aged woman riddled with disease and guilt, charting the course of Niamh’s life with humour and sensitivity. Daniels is quietly compelling as the overlooked Grace, a middle-aged woman whom life has passed by, but she also demonstrates perfect comic timing and excels at bringing the various peripheral characters to life.
Ian Talbot directs the first half with great pace and energy, rightly giving the dance scenes a wonderful carefree emphasis, for it was through a shared love of dancing that the family, particularly Niamh and Grace, came together to escape a difficult domestic environment. Talbot and his two cast members bring to life with great vitality the complex sibling relationship, the bond and rivalry between sisters and the deep connection that remains despite recriminations and regrets.
In the second half, however, Canavan focuses on edgier themes of illness and death, loss and anger, yet he has begun to lose his way, perhaps unwilling to really probe the darker aspects of his characters who are based on members of his own family. Despite continued strong performances from Stubbs and Daniels, Canavan fails to make us cry in the manner in which he previously made us laugh, and the later scenes exploring the sisters’ relationship as adults feel unsuccessfully tacked on to the end of the play.
However, this is Canavan’s first play, and he should be applauded for writing two rich, complex parts for older women. Talbot’s effective direction and the brilliant, exuberant performances by Stubbs and Daniels elevate what risks becoming, in less competent hands, a simple and arguably too safe nostalgic exploration of a 1970s working-class childhood. Although some might claim there is nothing particularly new in Third Finger, Left Hand, Canavan has written some truly wonderful moments, particularly in the first half, and Stubbs and Daniels are superb. Despite its faults, anyone who leaves the theatre having been moved to both laughter and tears ought to feel as though they’ve got their money’s worth.