Italian-born Michele Celeste's reputation as a playwright rests almost entirely upon his 1988 work Hanging The President, winner of a Mobil playwriting prize and a Fringe First. Of his subsequent plays to be seen in London, My Goat (1994) was a disappointing hostage two-hander, and Only A Complaint!?! (1991) a tenth-rate Dario Fo retread. The Price Of Meat falls with a sickening splat into the latter category. It is absolutely dreadful.
It's grim up North; the very town is called Grimley, and since they shut t'pit the town has barely subsisted on state benefits and petty crime. Joy Jackson and her two teenage daughters kill their abusive husband/father and transplant a tree to stand above his remains in the backyard, but find themselves blackmailed first by a smackhead prostitute, then a soon-to-be-laid-off social worker; these two they can similarly dispose of, but not the entire town, as an endless stream of friends and neighbours literally strips their home bare. Meanwhile, the grisly contents of the freezer must be kept secret from the dead man's cartoon-patrician mother, who hails from somewhere apparently called Chelseanfulham. Oh, my aching sides.
This ghastly Brookside-meets-The Cloggies farrago, staged in traverse for no apparent reason (hell, staged for no apparent reason), includes lines as subtle as: "'Ere – a full sheep's 'ead and some cow-'eel", "...askin' me to screw on credit", and "I am the murderer here – is that clear?" The one fine line in the entire play is, "I've always said the British police is the best in the country"; by reading it here, you have saved yourself ten pounds in ticket money and two and a quarter hours of theatrical purgatory.
Jayne Chard and her cast of eight women give an adequate enough production (although elderly Celia Gordon's memory for lines is clearly not what it once was), but Celeste's play itself, with its strident agitprop farce, is outdated by a good twenty years. Every possible tired cliché is poured on to the stage: teenage joyriders, chattering headscarfed neighbours, brusque but incompetent police, and finally the rallying round of the fundamentally decent northern community. For once, even the physical discomfort of Riverside Studio Three's seating (the most uncomfortable venue in London) is outdone by the agony of having to sit through such laboured, tub-thumping tripe. "Righteous ire," I wrote of Celeste's 1991 offering, "is no excuse for a poor show." It still isn't.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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