Writer: Simon Stephens
Director: Michael Kingsbury
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
A natural symmetry occurs when a pub theatre puts on a show about a pub. Simon Stephens’ 10-year old play was first performed above the bar of the old Bush and this revival appears at the back of the White Bear, which would now mirror the front bar were it not that, in the theatre area, it is 2004 and antiquated objects known as cigarettes can be found. If you buy tickets for this production, you need to be prepared for a lot of passive smoking.
The actors may speak a little louder, but we always get the sense that the characters and the conversations in the adjacent rooms are a broadly accurate reflection of each other. This early work by Stephens, who has progressed to become one of our foremost playwrights, is rich with sharp insight and natural dialogue, embellished with abundant ripe language. The conversations in the fictional bar may begin as banal and humorous, but Stephens skilfully peels away the outer layers of each of his characters to reveal the poignant truth.
The shabby East End bar is decorated with makeshift Christmas lights, an advent calendar and a photograph of Frank Sinatra hang on the wall. Michael, its owner, knows that any boost to takings that the Festive Season may bring will not be enough to clear his mounting debts. He is alienated from his son, facing an uncertain and lonely future and William Ely, looking world weary and near to defeat, captures perfectly his frustration and barely suppressed anger.
Billy arrives at the bar to escape his pot-smoking mother and drown thoughts of his beloved West Ham United, who have just suffered another defeat. He is slow-witted and volatile, but aware enough of his own problems and limitations, drawing back from the confrontations that his outward aggression inevitably bring. Ralph Aiken inhabiting the character with fierce intensity, makes Billy a dominant presence throughout the play.
Lionel Guyett, slight and looking frail, is Zeppo, an elderly Italian widower who still works as a hairdresser. Drinking may contravene doctors’ advice, but he still orders glasses of Drambuie, only to line them up neatly on a table. He has a strong sense of belonging to a place and of tradition, so, as close as possible, he is continuing his rituals. Like many others, he goes regularly to the same bar, takes part in much the same conversations and observes a religious festival that no longer has any real meaning.
Charlie (James Groom) is an interloper who is looked upon with suspicion. A northerner who has given up a career as a musician to become a postman, he carries a cello case which may or may not contain a cello. He provokes confrontations which appear almost like initiation tests, necessary before he can gain acceptance. All of these characters have problems which they may not be able to resolve, but at least the oasis of Christmas is in view and they can put them on hold until it is past.
Michael Kingsbury’s carefully measured production is brought to vivid life by this quartet of outstanding performances. Stephens seems to sense that he is writing about a dying world in which many pubs like the one in his play are disappearing. However, others are surviving by branching out into theatre, the response to which has to be “drinks all round”.
Runs until 21st December| PhotoKim Hardy Photography