Writer: Anna Jordan
Director: Chris Sonnex
Reviewer: David Guest
Leading 18th century writer, Samuel Johnson, once said, “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern.”
Whether you’re popping down to the local for a swift half, settling down for G&T and chat, joining the tribe to watch football on the large-screen TV, screeching through karaoke, or taxing your brains at a quiz night there’s nothing quite like the pub on the corner or in the secluded village to bring people together and warm the senses.
At the risk-taking Bunker Theatre a new play We Anchor In Hope is a modern masterpiece which both makes a plea for local pubs and small businesses and understands how important such meeting places are for those who go there. It is rich, funny and heartfelt and it must be one of the best things ever produced at the Southwark venue.
At a time when more and more pubs are closed to make way for supermarket express stores, classy restaurants and luxury flats Anna Jordan’s dark comedy drama couldn’t be more relevant. It captures a moment in history while unashamedly exploring love, life, relationships, memory, age and the joy of booze.
Jordan was commissioned by the Royal Court in 2016 to visit a variety of pubs, buy people drinks, and feel herself part of the community, then to write something which reflected the high and low points of local pub life. The result is something far more full-bodied than could have been expected, a worthy follow-up to Yen, her hard-hitting 2013 play about childhood and growing up.
We Anchor In Hope is a mature work that draws believable characters, focuses on key social issues such as austerity and housing without ever becoming overly political and cross-examines the true nature of nostalgia.
An extraordinarily well-cast five actors portray the lives of regulars in a pub on its last night before being closed for good. There are lots of laughs, sadness as individuals realise they have to leave this sanctuary for the real world and some profound soliloquies which are beautifully poetic and uncommonly heart-wrenching.
The versatile theatre space has been transformed into a functioning pub for the production, an impressively authentic design by Zoe Hurwitz with old balloons, beer bottles and crisp packets scattered around the room. For an hour before the show audiences can buy drinks pulled by the theatre’s artistic director Chris Sonnex (who also directs this play) and its general manager or play pool and on some evenings there are after-show opportunities to join in a quiz night, a karaoke evening or a disco.
Sonnex, who grew up in Pimlico where the play is set, directs with real understanding of the crucial importance of the local pub to a small community and he picks up the urgency of matters needing to be resolved for the characters on the brink of a life-changing event.
We are treated to one of the best casts on stage anywhere this year, playing characters who all shrink from the knowledge that life beyond the pub doors is tough and unyielding.
Bar girl Pearl is played with a feisty innocence by Alex Jarrett with an eye on rugged Irishman Shaun, a lovably roguish Alan Turkington, locked into a marriage that is going nowhere. Barman and dogsbody Bilbo (so named because of his passion for The Lord of the Rings) is a young man who life has aged before his time and trying to escape an unkind past, played with anguish by Daniel Kendrick, while the landlord Kenny is played with patient resignation by a spirited Valentine Hanson. Completing the line-up is the terrific David Killick as urbane Frank, a sprightly septuagenarian hiding a tragic secret.
It is to the credit of this production and its creative team that we utterly believe the set up and the characters’ stories. We smile and sigh at the ever so slightly out of date music, the wistfulness for what was and what may never be, the remorseless advance of modern life that strips away the things that really matter.
While there are degrees of genuine sadness and hopelessness Jordan has also ensured the play is uplifting and leaves us confident that these personable characters will stay in touch and rebuild relationships forged in the saloon bar. This Anchor is truly a place of hopes and dreams being ignited and while it may not have a storybook ending, you can’t help but feel that optimistic chapters will continue to be written.
Runs until 19 October 2019 | Image: Helen Murray