Writer: Philip King
Director: Tricia Thorns
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Where does the Finborough Theatre find them, all those classics barely performed since the era in which they were written and only decades later making their London debuts in this tiny space above a pub in South West London. The latest discover from their bottomless treasure trove is Philip King’s 1970 play Go Bang Your Tambourine, appearing in the capital for the first time in a powerfully acted revival directed by Tricia Thorns.
Having recently lost his beloved mother, 19-year old Salvation Army member David returns from her funeral determined that not even his errant and irreligious father will expel him from the house he loves. Soon, loneliness creeps in and David unexpectedly invites barmaid Bess to become his lodger much to the concern of his local Salvation Army Major. With warnings ringing in his ears, David and Bess develop an easy friendship until his father Tom returns once more to unbalance his son.
King’s play in some ways is fairly conventional, a traditional three-act structure with an undertone of melodrama that uses a couple of slightly unlikely narrative twists to propel the drama in new directions. There are conveniences in the timeframe that the audience must overlook, introduced too hastily to be entirely credible but are essential to the play’s direction. Those aside, what King does so well is to capture a point of real societal change, were the traditional Christian social values of the past crashed into the more liberated behaviours of the 1960s, as attitudes to sex and the position of women changed fundamentally.
Go Bang Your Tambourine, therefore, becomes a slow-burn examination of how these attitudes fit into new theatrical conventions, a kitchen-sink drama of sorts set in the north of England. What starts as a high-minded defence of the Salvation Army, the purity of David’s lifestyle and the childlike honesty of his emotional expression takes an entirely different path with the arrival of Bess as a an almost squalid tug of war begins between the two men which puts her duality at the centre of events as she grapples with her spiritual need to protect David’s innocence while battling Tom’s sexual allure.
Framed as David’s story, he is the least interesting character with a coming-of-age arc that includes an abrupt introduction to the ‘real world’. Sebastian Calver, making his debut along with the play, captures the evolution of the character from buttoned-up anger to the enjoyable shock of meeting the more free-speaking Bess. The play asks little of the character except to look outraged or offended a lot of the time, which Calver delivers well. As David clings to Bess and their cosy routine, Calver implies the conflicted nature of his feelings, seeing her as part replacement mother-figure, part seductress – a dichotomy he cannot admit never mind reconcile.
King’s secondary characters are far more interesting, not least the more modern Bess played with spirit by Mia Austen and painted in luminous colours against the pale domestic surroundings. A woman of her time, Bess is older and far more worldly than her landlord whose enthusiasm for her company she tries to abate. Austen has a real chemistry with John Sackville’s Tom, and despite King’s leap in credibility, she is more than a match for him, refusing to be used or judged for attending to her physical as well as spiritual desires.
Sackville’s Tom is equally complex, an unwilling father-figure trying to make amends one minute and the next a lecherous adulterer who abandoned his wife and child for another woman, and then fiercely pursues Bess. There’s something old-fashioned in his attitudes and while his sexual liberation may have felt contemporary, his views on woman, recourse to violence and hard streak of cruelty are redolent of a more autocratic era.
Thorns creates a compelling tension between the characters in this small space where the audience is full drawn into the action, asked to consider King’s ambiguous approach to the Salvation Army – are they like the Major (Patience Tomlinson) passive-aggressive manipulators of the vulnerable or a much-needed refuge for the needy? At 2 hours and 45-minutes Go Bang Your Tambourineis a long evening, but barely feels it until the play’s final moments. King’s play is another rare and valuable discovery by the Finborough; really where do they find them!
Runs Until: 31 August 2019 | Image: Phil Gammon