Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 28 April, 2008

If Lucy Kirkwood’s first full-length professional play were 20 minutes shorter and presented at a less minutely scrutinised venue – the Arcola, say, or the Union, where other of Kirkwood’s work has been seen – this piece would be seen as serving notice of a young playwright who was well on the way. As it is, the glass is more likely to be perceived as half-empty than half-full: Kirkwood isn’t there yet.
She has a lively and fecund imagination; Tinderbox is set in a near future where global warming has submerged much of southern England and created a Hadrian’s Channel. Illegal Scottish immigrant Perchik, finding himself in the urban war zone of Bradford, takes refuge in a butcher’s shop run by petty tyrant Saul and his formerly “trampy” wife Vanessa. They are persuaded to take Perchik in, at which point he discovers that the meat supply isn’t always what it could be and so… And so we’re into a version of the eternal triangle that is out of The Postman Always Rings Twice by way of Sweeney Todd, set perhaps in the city of Sarah Kane’s Blasted as rewritten by the League of Gentlemen. Saul, moreover, has a self-satisfied yet sadistic orotundity that suggests Joe Orton. Yet Kirkwood’s writing is more than the sum of these references and/or similar influences: when Perchik admits to Vanessa that he recognises her from a “party political pornographic film” in which her Lady Hamilton received a full Nelson, so to speak, the initial chuckle at the idea of Tory porn gives way to a kind of poignancy as they court each other by re-enacting fragments.
What is lacking so far is greater selectivity and discipline. Some of the gags about the new configurations of Britain and the world skitter over the line between satirising racism and inadvertently indulging it, the plot is too obvious in the neatness and cyclicality of its conclusion, and (especially on the Bush’s reconfigured seating, which is at present poorly pitched) there’s simply too much of it to compel throughout. But Josie Rourke has directed with her characteristic attentiveness, even redecorating the entire front of house, and Sheridan Smith gives another of her masterly only-partly-dumb-blonde performances as Vanessa. Kirkwood will deserve this kind of attention, and more, but on this showing she doesn’t quite.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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