Finborough Theatre, London SW10
Opened 1 February, 2008

The little Finborough is a disproportionately valuable component of the London theatre ecology. Its programme combines new writing and revivals of neglected older work, in selections which are intelligent and audacious. This production of Howard Brenton’s 1976 play (originally the inaugural show in the National’s Lyttelton house) is also valuable, though principally as an example of why such exhumations do not always find a still-warm dramatic body.
In my recent review of Ben Woolf’s Angry Young Man I noted that, only three years after its composition, it’s a different world as regards eastern European immigrants in Britain. How much truer is this in respect of the political and industrial climate of 30 years ago! The world of Brenton’s play is one of moderate to strong unionisation, a Labour Party that was still at least partly credible as a repository of socialist values, young people whose disrespect of elders had barely progressed beyond barbed banter to the occasional explicit verbal insult, and “Parking on yellow lines and knocking over old ladies in the parks” as core subjects of police attention. This is not simply quaint; it is alien. Even those of us who remember living among, and with, those values can no longer connect feelingly when presented with this version of them.
The problem is that these values are one side of Brenton’s dramatic equation. The activities and values of a bunch of workers who occupy a potato crisp factory (but, having occupied it, do not run it) are contrasted with those of one of their number, elderly odd-bod Josef Frank, who turns out to have been a Czechoslovak government minister purged in the show trials of 1952. (The real Josef Frank was hanged; his fictional counterpart came to England.) Frank’s memories of his struggles in government, experiences under torture and even a brief non-monochrome sketch of Stalin are superimposed on his attempts in 1976 to avoid not just conflict, but being noticed at all, and his frustrated responses to the uncomprehending young Trots. Brenton does not shrink from showing both sides of a political conflict, but when one of those sides is so absent from an audience’s experience and understanding, the other side correspondingly loses the power of contrast.
What remains is a committed central performance by Hilton McRae as Frank, and a production by Nathan Curry which makes good use of the Finborough space with a set composed of pallets and crates, but is weaker with the actors and script especially as each character in turn seems to get their set-piece speech about What It All Means To Them. For Brenton’s engagement with contemporary political complexities, far better watch the numerous episodes he has written of TV drama series Spooks.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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