Thursday 29 April 2010

Bigoted women and men?

Pressure Drop, Wellcome Collection, London

Pressure Drop is On Theatre’s (that’s the name of the company) latest ‘theatre essay’. The methodology behind these theatre essays is essentially that (in this instance) writer Mick Gordon and director Chris Haydon interview a number of people either intimately or intellectually connected to the subject under scrutiny – Pressure Drop began life as ‘On Identity’, before finding a home at the Wellcome Collection as part of its own investigation into identity – and then go away and write a play in which these some of views or reflections resurface in or inform what the characters think or say.

From this process, emerges a play, crossed with an installation, crossed with a gig. Like the other recent gig-show Micro, it’s a lovely idea, but what of the practice?

The subject of Pressure Drop is, topically enough, English/British nationalism/racism (even more so since Gordon Brown’s election-trail faux pas on the subject seems to have gone nuclear this week). Specifically, if not explicitly, the show deals with the rise of the British National Party in Barking, Essex, and takes the form of a promenade performance across three stages – a funeral parlour, a living room, and the corner of a pub, plus a fourth stage on which Billy Bragg and his band play songs and provide background and scene-change music and a bit of light-hearted banter.

The play tells the story of the Cleggs (again, amusingly, unintentionally topical), a working class family living in Barking. Jack (Michael Gould) has lost his father, his more successful brother, Jon (Justin Salinger) is returning from New York where he works as a banker. His best mate Tony (David Kennedy - brilliant) is trying to persuade him to stand as a local councillor for the BNP. This is all complicated by the fact that Jack’s dead father, a WWII veteran, had an abiding love of reggae music and black culture ever since his life was saved by a black soldier in the war.

As plays go, on a micro level it works quite well – the family stuff is quite moving, and there’s a nice focus-pull moment early on which raises the text above workaday naturalism. On the other hand, the politics end of stuff still feels somewhat schematic. That’s not to say that the characters don’t ring true, or that their arguments aren’t methodically researched, but it still feels a bit like the central antagonists each shoulder a thesis/antithesis position while the supporting cast are applied as light and shade around them.

There’s also the fact that, as drama, only one character – Jack – really has any decisions to make and his modus operandi is largely to stand looking helpless and be buffeted as his brother and best friend argue their positions.

I also found the casting slightly problematic. Because David Kennedy’s Tony is this built-for-violence, larger than life BNP skinhead lager lout, the other characters seem hopelessly outgunned. We never see, for example, what makes Tony want Jack to be the local councillor. Tony tells us that it’s Jack that’s the foreman – perhaps Jack is now too shell-shocked by the death of his father – but Gould’s performance suggests a man who has never been comfortable in his own skin, who has been bullied by his best friend his entire life. A man steeped in disappointments and quietly shamed by his younger brother’s success. He does ‘nice bloke’ and ‘reluctant racist’ well, but behind this, there isn’t quite the writing to flesh out this basic position.

There’s a sense that the text would suffer if presented as an end-on drama, but since it was conceived as a whole, along with the ‘installation’ and ‘gig’ elements, there doesn’t seem much point in criticising it for not achieving something it’s not intended to. And the presentation does alter things.

There are a couple of interesting meta-points that having the performance in promenade raises – firstly, it strikes me as excellent that in a play about resentment of immigration the entire audience is made to negotiate peaceably amongst themselves for space. Secondly, it was very interesting to watch the entire audience trot up and down the space like a big herd, all looking in the same direction at the same time. Quite early on, I took the not-as-perverse-as-it-sounds decision to try to stand somewhere else so I could watch the audience as well as the play. Standing slightly outside the crowd led to a few moments where I felt I perhaps appreciated the dramaturgy of the space slightly better than someone stood right up close to the action. On the other hand, choosing to set oneself analytically apart does make for a different experience, and perhaps not the full one, but I’ve always been suspicious of crowds.

Beyond this, the staging works well at a concrete level as well as metaphorical. There’s clearly an awareness of the likely constituency of an audience who’d come to see a play about politics with music by Billy Bragg staged at the Wellcome Collection in a converted exhibition hall, and the production ironises the sort of ‘let’s go and look at how the other half live’ voyeurism of which this sort of play is often accused by confronting it head on, and almost highlighting the way in which these characters are being put on show in an exhibition space. Rather than saying: ‘Come! See the proles in recreations of their natural habitat!’, it seems to be saying: ‘look at yourselves looking at this, and have a think about that’. Indeed, it makes a strong case for every play purporting to be anthropological being staged in glass cases in museums so that everyone watching is made aware of this.

I should probably say a word or two about Billy Bragg’s contribution too. I’d never considered myself a huge fan before, but the new songs written for the play are musically sound enough – his voice isn’t quite as stridently Essex in all of them as it used to be, and the musicianship on show is undeniable, and, well, they’re not bad, really. The version of Pressure Drop at the end, while not perhaps as good as other versions, is still enough to have had the damn thing stuck in my head for three days. And having the music played live to a clearly appreciative audience adds an excellent extra dimension, even if lyrically, some of the new numbers seem to be a bit on-the-nose/direct compared with the more subtle way in which drama works.

What was most interesting to me, though, was the amount of research done and fact that the text of the play itself seemed to have deliberately left it out (at least explicitly). In this way, my earlier assessment of ‘thesis/antithesis’ is slightly unfair. The conversations do actually run more like conversations – albeit it ones in which everyone talks in blocks of text – than ‘whoops! Exposition!’ levels of research being put into people’s mouths. Except it felt that the research needed to be put somewhere. As if, in editing for realism, necessary information and perspectives had been excised.

As it was, what did we actually end up with? A slightly under-powered narrative trajectory possibly using a particular decision-moment in one family’s life to shed light on the whole question of the alleged feelings of disenfranchisement of the ‘white working class’ (call me an old Marxist, but the colour of a worker really doesn’t matter and discussion of it is just so much false-consciousness). It’s a big ask, and I’m not sure the piece quite gets there – hedging its dramatic bets between not wanting to be too didactic or schematic and not being didactic or schematic enough.

For all this to-ing and fro-ing, with my opinion, though, perhaps the most ringing endorsement of the show I can offer is that it was my second promenade piece of the day and I’d been told it was an hour and a half long. At the end of its actual two-hour running time, I was surprised that it’d been half an hour longer than I’d been told. So, one way or another, I’d been fully engaged and interested throughout, even if some of the sorts of things that play does aren’t necessarily my favourite sort of thing for plays to do.

Till 12 May 2010

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