Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 9 June, 2000

My counterpart on another paper "suspect[s] gay sex on stage has never been quite so visually frank" as in Mrs Steinberg And The Byker Boy; I mean no disrespect, but he should get out more. A couple of snogs, a couple of fumbles and a brief bout of dry-humping amid clothing-filled bin-bags in the basement of a charity shop hardly signal a watershed in explicit theatrical naughties. Natasha Betteridge's production of Michael Wilcox's play for the Bush in unlikely to frighten the horses to any great extent. As Matty, the Byker boy of the title, Paul Nicholls shows that he is more than the pretty face of EastEnders and City Central, but does nothing to alienate his female fan base too vigorously; indeed, at one or two moments early in the evening, I felt a faint suspicion that his solo business was calculated to be looked at rather than simply watched, so to speak.

Wilcox makes some interesting observations about the culture of charity shops: when competition for stock and drive to make money for their chosen causes becomes too intense, such shops begin to lose their base among their communities as sources of cheap clothing and the like. This is further dramatised by making the setting for the play a specifically socialist enterprise, the Red Flag shop in North Shields on Tyneside. When its elderly commissar Mrs Steinberg returns from a month in Poland, she finds that Matty has spruced up the place, established a network of scouts for stock, begun to sell rare items over the Net and increased takings severalfold (as well as getting into the heart and trousers of staff volunteer Peter), but at the expense of the principles which informed every facet of the shop's existence. As Mrs S. (Miriam Karlin, now a major asset to any director with a feisty-but-endearing-old-bat role to fill) spits succinctly about the shop's name change, "New Red Flag! That just about sums it up."

It is, as I say, an intriguing and all too plausible perspective (borne out by some scholarly research reprinted in the programme); it is also digested within the drama of old-versus-young, old-versus-new rather than turned into a Marxist dialectic on stage. Truth to tell, I was a little worried whether it was noticeable enough, suspecting that I was one of a handful at most in the audience who were seeing anything beyond a modish story of faith in innovation as an end in itself. Ultimately, though, it is a tribute to Wilcox and Betteridge that the production – the Bush's last before it shuts for the summer to allow refurbishment of the pub below (God be praised, it is to cease being the Fringe and Firkin!) – works equally well as an examination of ideological zeal, a good yarn of colliding archetypes or a chance to see young Mr Nicholls strut his stuff to an only moderately risqué extent.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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