Writer: Heathcote Williams
Director: Michael Toumey
Reviewer: Fergus Morgan
Director Michael Toumey wants audiences to leave his production of Heathcote Williams’ The Local Stigmatic thinking, “Fucking hell – what was that?” It’s a wish that was probably shared by Williams himself, and by George Devine who transferred the first production of Williams’ one-act play from Edinburgh to the Royal Court half a century ago. Toumey’s revival, at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre, is a 50th-anniversary tribute to Williams, and although his audience isn’t quite as shell-shocked as he might desire, his production is still a scouring hour of stark visuals and brutal language.
Williams’ subject is fame, or more specifically, the maniacal tendencies of those cravenly obsessed with the famous. Graham (Wilson James) and Ray (William Frazer) are two working class South London sociopaths, who while away their time losing money on the dogs, getting thrown out of pubs, and devouring the fluffy newspaper gossip columns in frenzies of envy and contempt. When they come across an actor who Graham ‘follows’ (Tom Sawyer), they relish the opportunity to vent their frustration, ingratiating themselves by masquerading as autograph-seeking sycophants, then pitilessly exacting their revenge on him.
Graham and Ray are two beautifully twisted characters, beaten down by the barrage of endless celebrity worship, yet paradoxically enthralled by the most mind-numbingly banal scrap of gossip. They are simply unable to bear this grip that celebrity culture has on them, and this potent cocktail of love and loathing comes to a head when they chance upon Sawyer’s minor celebrity. In true 60s fashion, though, Graham and Ray are the real victims, the downtrodden by-products of a society obsessed with fame.
Not that as much is immediately obvious. Williams, hand in hand with Pinter (The Local Stigmatic actually premiered alongside a reworked version of Pinter’s The Dwarfs), uses language in a compellingly oblique way. Off-hand remarks are imbued with huge significance; small phrases are repeated again and again, their meaning mutating all the time; lengthy stories about losing at the dogs become metaphors for something else entirely. Graham and Ray are trapped by the constraints of their vocabulary and so, unable to find the right words, they make the wrong ones work for them. Williams, like Pinter, manages to be extremely articulate without being articulate at all.
Both James and Frazer are superb as Graham and Ray, leather-jacketed hybrids of the Kray twins and the Blues Brothers with aims decidedly less philanthropic than getting the band back together. James’ Graham – surely related to Pinter’s Lenny and Mick – is a caged animal, always teetering on the edge of violence; wide-eyed and wolfish, he barks his lines with open aggression. Frazer’s Ray is quieter, his dissatisfaction manifesting themselves in a deliberate drawl and his niggling reservations subtly essayed throughout in the flickering of his eyes. Toumey’s direction makes good use of the sparse set – a collage of dart-pierced album covers and posters across the back wall is a nice, symbolic touch – and is complemented well by Tom Kitney’s smoky lighting.
The Local Stigmatic is a play that gnaws away at you. Its foreboding condemnation of celebrity culture is perhaps not as powerful now as it was when Beatlemania was forging the world’s first megastars, but it is nonetheless a sobering note, viscerally delivered.
Runs until 28 May 2016 | Image:Scott Rylander