Dirty Work (The Late Shift) – Battersea Arts Centre, London

Writers: Tim Etchells with Robin Arthur and Cathy Naden
Director: Tim Etchells
Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Forced Entertainment’s newest show Dirty Work (The Late Shift) is full of spectacle; A thousand butterflies are released out of boxes to swirl around the audience, famous assassinations are re-enacted on stage while trapeze artists dazzle and tumble above it. But look again, and you will see that the stage is virtually empty. All these coups de théâtre take place in the imagination.


This play is about theatre and theatricality. It’s a piece of metatheatre. There is no single narrative thrust but, instead, there is a series of beginnings that go nowhere followed by a series of tragic endings for characters we have never met. On stage Forced Entertainment’s co-founders Robin Arthur and Cathy Naden describe the actors we never see, and the events we never witness. It is up to us to do the work and make the pictures. The dirty work from the title relates to the work we are required to do.

Although formed in 1984, Sheffield’s Forced Entertainment is still leading the way in experimental theatre and it’s a shame that we don’t see enough of them in Britain. They are huge in Europe, Germany especially, and Artistic Director Tim Etchells puts this popularity down to the fact that while the British scene puts too much value on playwrights and their motives, the Continental scene favours different and less traditional forms of theatre. Dirty Work (The Late Shift) is certainly innovative. It is an interpretation of an earlier show first performed in 1998, and at that time it signalled a shift for the theatre company as they moved from physical theatre, which created riotous spectacle on stage, to text-based work where the spectacle took place in the imagination. Almost 20 years later and now in a period where social media and rolling news programmes appear to thrive on producing and reproducing endless spectacle, Forced Entertainment felt that it was time Dirty Work was re-imagined.

But rather than reflect modern life, this 80-minute show flirts lovingly with older theatrical forms. The Victorian Music Hall, the Revue, the Circus, and even the Freak Show, make an appearance as Arthur and Naden directly address the audience to summon up magicians, dancers and actors on the stage behind them. Sometimes the images provide laughs while others provoke pity. Some scenes don’t quite work, but others will come quickly as there are plenty more acts on the playbill. This is confident and thoughtful work, but it requires collaboration with the audience, and those who accept the challenge will be thoroughly rewarded.

As the show draws towards its final act there is a melancholy that hangs in the air like the crimson drapes that frame the stage and throw twilight on the cast. Entrances are now replaced by exits as the actors in our heads move off stage to find someone else to entertain.

Ultimately, for all its emphasis on presence, this astounding play is about loss and broken dreams.

Runs until 1 July 2017 | Image: Hugo Glendinning

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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