Faces in the Crowd – White Bear Theatre, London

Writer: Leo Butler

Director: Law Ballard

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

“It’s bigger than it looks from the outside” observes Joanne; “We call it Tardis” responds Dave. They are talking about the studio flat on the fringes of London’s East End of which Dave is sub-tenant, but they could just as well be talking about the pub theatre that is staging this revival of Leo Butler’s 2008 play, first seen at the Royal Court Theatre in London. If director Law Ballard’s new production is not exactly site-specific, it feels as near such as makes little difference.

Joanne and Dave have lived apart for ten years, but remain married. He had walked out of their heavily-mortgaged Sheffield home to reclaim his freedom and live a life of easy money, free-flowing sex and casual drug-taking. He is now a 44-year-old recruitment consultant who reads The Guardian and looks forward to Question Time on television. After struggling to pay off debts, 39-year-old Joanne has established a small business as a florist. The reasons for her visit to see her husband are left unclear until well into the play, but the differences that separate the pair are abundantly obvious from the outset. 

Butler’s harsh, unsentimental examination of the north-south divide and gender inequality feels as biting and relevant now as it would have been when first performed. The Sheffield-born writer spreads his cynicism even-handedly, pouring scorn on both the shallow hypocrisy of London’s middle classes and the small-mindedness of their northern counterparts. Played over 75 minutes in real time, Ballard’s carefully paced production is slow to get going, but it builds to a powerful crescendo with a raw and bruising confrontation between the two protagonists.

The acting could hardly be bettered. Bonnie Adair’s sharp-tongued, direct Joanne, displays her emotional scars openly and refuses to be impressed by the landmarks, glamour and excitement of our capital city. Outwardly, she is strong and proud, allowing only the audience to see her tears. Adam Bone’s Dave is nervous and evasive in his wife’s presence, seemingly hiding feelings of deep-rooted guilt. He brushes off Joanne’s jibes until pushed into a corner and then unleashes a ferocious tirade against the northern lifestyle that had stifled all his ambitions in life. For Joanne, geography is not the only constraint. As a woman, she sees that the options that Dave took to break free were not available to her, even less so now that she is an ageing woman.

Michael Leopold’s precisely detailed set design crams everything into the small cube that Dave inhabits, including a kitchen sink. Noise from neighbours in the converted building is forever intruding and the set will be a familiar place for many locals who enter the White Bear Theatre during this production’s run. Indeed, the play’s themes should also resonate strongly. The divisions, north-south and male-female, persist at the end of Butler’s play and, if the writer offers a distant hope of reconciliation with his final line, it is only a very faint one.

Runs until 31 March 2018 | Image: Contributed

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Raw and bruising

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. 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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