Making a song and dance about redundancy

Its 11 months now since I was made redundant after more than a decade working in local government. As I wrote at the time, I had mixed feelings on my exit. Whatever the size of the redundancy cheque – and mine just about saw me through – in the current economic climate there is something slightly terrifying about being let go. At the same time I remember how I felt like one of the lucky ones. It was the poor sods left behind that I really felt sorry for. They would have to continue as before but in a working environment still less hospitable to their endeavours.

While the writing career hasn’t quite taken off – well, it still isn’t paying the bills – the sense of elation at being freed of the obligations of public service was undeniable. I hasten to add that I have since returned as a consultant and with a new enthusiasm for the day job. But such is the individuation of our working (and non-working) lives these days – that’s my excuse anyway – I had yet to take stock of the creative talents of those around me. It was only when I had all the time in the world to scroll through their Facebook updates that I discovered that they had so much more to offer.

So I thought as the lights were dimmed for the second night of a short run of the intriguingly titled Redundancy the Musical, written and composed by a former colleague of mine. That Naomi Lowde was able to find inspiration in what is the grey managerial world of local government is quite something. That she made it entertaining too was a bonus. So, while these creatives are being let loose on the world – and they’ll no doubt find ever more inventive ways of making art and making ends meet – I can’t help feeling that a public sector long past being able to harness such things is the poorer for it.

Being ‘normal’

The Elephant Man, Hackney Empire, London

I was intrigued when I heard that in this production by Sheffield Theatre, the lead would be played without the prosthetics famously worn by John Hurt in the BAFTA award-winning classic 1980 film, directed by the inimitable David Lynch. Though Hurt’s portrayal is still perhaps considered the definitive version, I was all the more intrigued as I remember seeing stills from the original Tony award-winning Broadway production of the play by Bernard Pomerance; also in 1980, and featuring none other than the famously wooden David Bowie.

Having studied mime early on in his career under Lindsay Kemp, Bowie was widely praised for his performance, presumably drawing on his training to contort his body to mimic Joseph Carey (more commonly misnamed ‘John’) Merrick, the eponymous Elephant Man. Likewise, Joe Duttine is mesmerising here as Merrick as he twists his body and features, and inhabits his uncomfortable frame for the duration of the play. He first appears on the darkened stage in an eerie smoggy London crowd scene, draped in the cloak and famous hood. Soon after, we witness Duttine’s transformation into the Elephant Man.

Dr Treves describes the Elephant Man’s distorted anatomy for his colleagues at the London Hospital. As he points to each monstrous growth, or misshapen limb, Duttine adopts the twisted anatomy of the real Merrick projected onto the screens backstage. He throws his head back at an angle; his mouth stretched to one side, and turns and walks as instructed in the pained and awkward fashion dictated by his condition. It is a clever theatrical device, doing away with the need for make-up that could only fall short of Hurt’s; and at the same time exposing the artifice of the performance without making it any less believable. This initial fixing in the viewers mind of Merrick’s features, allows Duttine to carry with him a physical shorthand for what it must have been like to live in that tortuous body.

Merrick’s life was destined to be a tragic one. Born in Leicester in 1862, he left home in shame and spent periods in the local workhouse, before becoming an exhibit in a travelling freak show. It was during a spell drawing paying punters from the back of a shop on the Mile End road that he was visited by Treves, who was to eventually bring him to a more dignified public attention. It was soon after this meeting, and an ill-fated trip to Belgium, that Merrick’s luck changed, after he caused a stir on his return via Liverpool Street Station.

In a scene that is particulary reminiscent of the film, he clambers awkwardly from back stage in the same cloak and hood, shifting laboriously and leaning on a cane. Already robbed and beaten by his keeper-showman, and with his condition deteriorating due to a bronchial condition associated with his facial deformity, Merrick was apparently jostled by the appalled crowds. It is a scene where the ensemble acting really comes into its own. Three of the cast magically transform themselves from statuesque onlookers into a baying mob as Merrick and Treves enter and exit stage, squeezing through the imagined throngs.Put in the care of Treves at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, Merrick soon became a celebrity within the upper echelons of London society, and a favourite of Princess Alexandria and later Queen Victoria herself. He was, to use that outdated expression, something of a wit. When he eventually cries: ‘I am not an animal! I am a human being! I … am … a man’, our sympathies are with him too because we understand his struggle all the more. Tired of being prodded, abused and stared at, by the crowds and by the doctors, he expresses as succinctly as he can his wanting to be a part of humanity – at least a very select part of it.

Indeed, this is perhaps where Duttine and director Ellie Jones slip up. We know that Merrick had great difficulty speaking, as we see him tutored by the tireless Treves. The problem with this production, and perhaps with the writing itself, is that Merrick is intelligible from the outset. His struggle to vocalise what lies within his monstrous exterior (so brilliantly captured by Hurt) is all important. It is indicative of the strenuous effort to transform himself from sideshow ‘freak’ to somebody deserving of the respect of those around him. That this is lost may be unavoidable given the need for us to know what he is saying in the opening scenes, but it also means that the progression in his speech is not apparent; and the efforts of Treves’ seem necessarily ‘staged’.

Merrick died at the age of just 27 on dislocating his neck while sleeping. Here and in the film version too, it is clear that it was a deliberate act. Not suicide as such, but rather an act of defiance – a determination to sleep as others do even if it was on his deathbed. He wanted to be normal, or should that be ‘normal’.

Merrick lived during an age of discovery quite unlike our own with medical science in its infancy but breaking new ground all the time. Treves is an ambitious doctor fasicinated by this terrible specimen, and at the same time drawn into an enduring relationship with Merrick as a man. His professional distance is not only tempered by their friendship, but fuelled by the spirit of the age, still firmly rooted in the Enlightenment and the notion of universal man. Merrick’s deformity is an aberrance to be eliminated by science, but the man himself is to be treated as an equal among men.

The Elephant Man works at a number of levels. For me – and this is less true of the claustrophobic filmic treatment – Jones’s direction, her lightness of touch, brings out the subtlety of the writing. Instead of the focus being on the deformed Merrick and his travails, it is the Elephant Man as metaphor for the society of which he was a part that truly resonates. It isn’t a simple celebration of the onward march of science and industry. It is also the story of the violence of the industrial revolution as it distorts and twists the bodies of men, women and children, through the poverty, disease and inhuman labour and living conditions in the slums of the East End.

All of which makes the restored Victorian music hall theatre that is the Hackney Empire the ideal setting for this evocative performance – with Liverpool Street station, and the Whitechapel of the London Hospital and Jack the Ripper (with whose victims Merrick shared a pathologist) just a short distance away. I left the theatre in this still poor part of London – so beloved of the bohemians of Shoreditch and Hoxton – wondering at our own morbid curiosity with the elephent men and women of today. The sideshow – abolished in Merrick’s lifetime has been revived – and made into mainstream entertainment. 

Any number of freaky ‘extraordinary people’ on Channel 5 – including the recent ‘half man, half tree’ who like Merrick is part of a traveling circus troupe of the facially disfigured; and the last episode of ‘body shock’ on the ‘Chinese Elephant Man’, Huang Chuancai, broadcast on Channel 4 recently – point to our own disturbing voyeurism. Perhaps the same goes for those of us drawn to the theatre to gawp at this theatrical recreation – we become the morbid voyeurs one-step removed. But at least by writing this review I can content myself that there is more to the Elephant Man than meets the eye. And that I suppose is the whole point.

Full Time

Y Touring Theatre

Girls who want to play football, Asian kids who can’t get selected, others beaten up because they’re gay – this era-defining play, which will tour UK schools next autumn, ticks all the boxes. As Steve, our hip young host tells the kids in the schools ‘you can be homophobic against heterosexuals too’. With these words ringing in our confused ears, the sad (because its, like, real) spectacle began.

Don’t listen to naïve critics who complain that the world isn’t really full of hatred and abuse, and that our schools are anything but a hotbed of prejudice, violence and battered human frailty. As we were reminded throughout this piece by Rachel Wagstaff – the world is indeed a ‘messed up’ place. We need to get real with kids and make sure they are hearing that message loud and clear. In fact we could do with more awareness-promoting outreach-oriented theatre like this production if they are going to cope with life in general. Like the helplines ‘for those affected’ by a particularly thought-provoking and harrowing (oh, it can be harrowing) episode of Hollyoaks, the kids can’t get enough of this sort of thing.

Full Time is gripping stuff, and Wagstaff certainly has a knack for holding an audience in open-mouthed disbelief, and affecting us. You see, life really is like this. Sure, the giggly girls in the front row might treat it as a bit of fun when the boys take off their tops in the changing room scene. But as the ever right-on Steve assured the assembled luminaries (including a rather ‘with it’ looking vicar), they would remove the offending scene like a flash (if you’ll excuse the pun) should it offend any of the schools they hope to visit. It’s good to see that not only are the Y Touring Theatre Company engaged in the making of challenging theatre – including use of the word ‘paki’ (again, they’ll remove it if you like, schools) – but they also hold the anxieties of concerned head teachers up and down the land in high regard too.

This is not to detract from the importance of telling it ‘like it is’ to young people, which sometimes involves making them aware not only of what is appropriate, but also about the impact of the inappropriate use of language too. That we can begin to tackle (there I go again!) the wrong thoughts that might otherwise persist in young minds is very important. Indeed, it is only in this way that we can be sure that the right-thinking, inoffensive and tolerant worldview, of which you and I have been made all too aware, is transmitted to the next generation at every available opportunity. To what better end can theatre be put than engaging vulnerable young people with important issues?

We need to be vigilant though, as Steve made all too clear. Apparently, there are young people who continue to use the word ‘gay’ in a derogatory fashion, to denote their distaste. Of course, given the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from the schools, that is not a word that could be used to describe Full Time. Indeed, we can only hope that community arts projects like this continue to spread the word (as the good vicar might say).

This is why it was so wonderful to see so many forward-looking organisations sat on the Full Time Advisory Group, with editorial contributions from the Football Association (FA), the Women’s Football Foundation, the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation, Stonewall, Kick it Out, Rainbow Nation, Sporting Equals and (last but not least) the Homeless World Cup. Never was there a better advertisement for dramatic writing by committee. That is what real theatre is all about – engaging with ‘real’ issues, and being relevant to the lives of our at risk and traumatised young people. Let’s have no more ludicrous ideas about taking kids ‘out of themselves’ with Shakespeare and the like. This is why football is such a great vehicle for engaging young people at a ‘level they understand’ as one of the excellent young actors (actually, they were) helpfully put it.

Sadly so engrossed were we by the debrief we ran out of time, and were unable to repeat the electronic vote we took part in before the play started. Suffice to say there are a minority of people who continue to believe that there is no need to kick racism, homophobia, and female-footy hating out of the game. They seem to think there isn’t a big problem with prejudice. (No doubt they also think that a bit of ‘healthy’ competition is a good thing.) I’ve even heard some disparage women’s football as a bit ‘gay’ anyway and not to be encouraged! Nevertheless, it was heartening to see a large majority in favour of stamping down on such dissent, and creating the ‘healthy society’ that the Y Touring Theatre Company is on a mission to promote. Who could object to that?

Full Time will be touring in autumn 2008.


 Arcola Theatre, London

Originating from the potentially poisonous ink wells of a practising social worker (Judith Jones) and campaigning writer and journalist Beatrix Campbell, this play turns out to have more to recommend it than I was expecting. This is largely because of some excellent performances from actors more familiar (to this reviewer at least) from their work on staple TV shows like The Bill (the versatile Andrew Paul) and Eastenders (the wonderful Lindsey Coulson).

The action or lack thereof revolves around a kind of druggy Royle Family. Somebody is usually skinning up as they recline on their well-used sofas, lost in a haze of smoke as the spliff (or the crack pipe) is ceremoniously passed around. The telly is always on. A hole is blasted in the living room ceiling and the lighting rig peeps through. A danger-red backdrop forewarns of what lies within.

Instead of the spirited Carol Jackson I remember from the days when I would admit to watching EastEnders, we have the washed up and neglectful Mandy. She would never work down the laundrette and look after all those kids on her own like Carol once did. When things get too much for her – which is most of the time – she seeks oblivion, gets someone to turn the music up and sways in her tracksuit. All that’s left of Carol is the peppering of her dialogue with the occasional ‘slag!‘ and the obligatory ‘faamily!‘ Katie Wimpenny is superb as Chantelle, the teenage mum-to-be white ghetto girl. And her ‘baby father’ and resident drug dealer Dwayne is played with real swagger by the impressive Nicholas Beveney. The pair of them had me convinced from the off, and looked and sounded like they’d made a wrong turn down Arcola Street and wandered into the theatre by mistake.

But for all their efforts to achieve the kind of authenticity the writers evidently crave, I couldn’t help but wonder at the source of this essentially sordid depiction of working class life. The text seemed to spring less from the people of Hackney, where the play is a little too self-consciously situated in this production, than from a generalised mood of despair. This seems to be combined with a disappointment with the trajectory of a once progressive politics the authors no longer recognise. Onto which is grafted this tale of ever worsening urban deprivation and despair for a workless and apparently helpless ‘orphaned class’ (as the accompanying brochure would have it). This seems to be the signature theme of liberal-left writers at the moment. It is as if the deprivation of the few is made to stand for a wider disaffection of their own. Or alternatively as they would have it, their ‘troubles expose the state of the nation’.

This theme certainly titillates the audience and strikes a chord with the critics, seemingly regardless of the quality of the theatre. A willingness to emote and bear witness to the tragic and hopeless lives of the unfortunate is enough. ‘Only the stonehearted could remain unaffected,’ declared the Stage, and ‘if you have a social conscience, this is unmissable’ insisted the reviewer at the UK Theatre Network, rather incongruously. The critic at Metro described it as ‘politicised theatre’. Not political theatre, note. That summed up for me the way the writers seem intent on drawing attention to an ‘issue’ and raising an apparently lacking awareness of the lives depicted, but to no great effect (though some affect, perhaps). They fail to engage in argument, or provoke the audience’s anger at the injustice of poverty. They can only move us to tears (all except for the stonehearted folk like me of course).

There is a tradition of writers, artists and documentary makers drawing people’s attention to the plight of those living on the margins of society. Cathy Come Home is an example of how this kind of work can raise public consciousness and actually have a material impact on people’s lives. But today this sort of thing is more problematic because every social problem is almost inevitably writ large as a symptom or expression of a wider malaise. To which the natural response is resignation rather than mobilisation. You can try to tackle poverty but how do you fight malaise? No wonder the characters end up mouthing the relentlessly soul-sapping prejudices of the writers, and spiral inevitably toward the final tragedy of the piece. Blame thinks it is a kitchen sink drama, but is actually somewhere between Greek tragedy and dystopian farce. This is a script written not so much by Jones and Campbell, but by circumstance, they seem to be saying.

As I headed home, back down Arcola Street onto Kingsland High Street and into the more familiar Hackney night of restaurants and bars, it seemed a world away from what I’d just seen. I don’t doubt that there are people living lives every bit as desperate and distressing as those depicted on that stage – working in social care, I come across some of them myself. But their peculiar experiences don’t say anything in particular about the moral state of our society. The problem of poverty is bad enough on its own, without turning it into a metaphor for all that is bad and rotten in contemporary social and political culture.

President of an Empty Room

If good theatre is about the suspension of disbelief then President of an Empty Room inspires it in spades. Its portrayal of a semi-real contemporary Cuba is somewhere between a Latin American 1984 (just imagine Orwell’s nightmare vision set in a shabby sweatshop of a cigar factory somewhere in Havana) and a kind of folksy Trainspotting with the occasional flamenco dance set-piece thrown in.

The plot. A gifted young man descends into confusion and despair, fuelled by a heroin habit that renders him delusional after his supposed sweetheart takes off in a boat for Key West. Meanwhile, a framed picture of Castro – presumably President of the emptying room of Cuba – looks on as the workers – a crippled veteran of a ‘pointless war’, played by a wheelchair-bound Anthony O’Donnell, another old cynic played by a panama hat wearing Steven Moore (though, to be honest I preferred him as Kevin’s aka Harry Enfield’s dad); and the deliciously sassy backroom girls (Petra Letang and Inika Leigh Wright) – bicker more or less cheerfully over the rolling-room play list.

The performance of Paul Hilton as Miguel the agitated junky and self-appointed President is cold-sweat-in-a-hot-room intense and highly compelling. Indeed, the musical interludes serve as sweet relief from his ravings as he oscillates between wishing his love all the best and damning her to the bottom of the ocean. Bunny Christie’s incredibly evocative set is filled with the combined haze of implied stifling heat (huge fan on wall) and – the very real – billowing cigar smoke issuing not least from the amply statured if quietly majestic Jim Carter as Don Jose. This proves the perfect backdrop for some accomplished ensemble performances, superbly directed by Howard Davies, and bringing Steven Knight’s wonderfully lyrical piece to life.

The uneasy tension generated by the failed promise of a distant revolution and the persistence of voodoo in the lives and imaginings of the characters is never far away. The influence of the latter is arguably a little over-indulged though, and the production perhaps goes a dream-sequence too far as the ghostly Alexandra appears and re-appears to playfully haunt Miguel to the swoonsome laments of the mysterious fiddler standing in the wings. Don’t ask. Other than that, this is a welcome detour from the vaguely-leftish ‘anti-war’ gesturing of recent offerings. Indeed, give or take the occasional reference to the inferior quality of the cigar leaf of Guantanamo Bay, there is little of the otherwise obligatory anti-Americanism discernible.

Like all good things, President of an Empty Room comes with a health warning attached – yes, it is (as the critics have rightly gushed) authentic, atmospheric and quite transfixing, but remember, poverty isn’t funky, shabby isn’t sensual and cigars are definitely bad for you.