Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1
Opened 9 July, 2008

We take it stoically when the classic English weather puts a literal dampener on outdoor summer events. In theatre terms, though, classics are less at risk than new work. At Shakespeare’s Globe, I have seen a Tempest that benefited from special effects courtesy of God; but Ché Walker’s new play at the same venue, set on the bustling cosmopolitan streets around Camden Town Tube station, might have been washed out by the rain on its opening night. In the event, a couple of forthright additional lines to the rapped no-photography-no-phones prologue kept the rain-caped groundlings onside, and once we heard the opening scene’s gospel number, “Jesus Gave Me Water”, a bond of genial self-awareness was forged between performers and audience.
The Frontline fits in the Globe because, although unambiguously of the present day, it is a city play in a solid Elizabethan/Jacobean tradition: a large, almost sprawling work where several plotlines jostle for prominence with none winning out. What matters here is the big picture, the diversity of activities – love, sex, drugs, fast food, race issues – and yet the similarity of drives as all characters search for meaning, fulfilment, identity, whether it comes through a quick buck made as a drug courier or a lap-dancer or through a cracked, obsessive search which leads one elderly man to accost every woman on stage as his long-lost daughter.
John Stahl is excellently cast as the narrator, a philosophical hot dog vendor who early on heralds and then guides us towards the death which will climax the evening, that of easygoing dope peddler Miruts (Beru Tessema). Walker portrays London’s melting-pot of cultures well: young men of Ethiopian and Somali descent argue about Mogadishu in standard north London accents, a Scot and an Afghan spontaneously band together to defend their neighbours against an Anglo-Saxon racist thug. Matthew Dunster’s production keeps matters constantly on the move, responding well to Walker’s overlapping dialogue so that it seems like a properly, incompletely observed city night. Even the Camden location feels authentic: many of us know, for instance, the real-life equivalent of “the Ephemera Theatre” where Trystan Gravelle’s precious actor is trying to entice the press to his one-man show about Walter Sickert. After the uncertainties of last year’s new work at the Globe, The Frontline feels very much part of the season and of the city.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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