Arcola Theatre, London E8
  Opened 15 April, 2009

Jack Shepherd’s play is simply too accurate. A kind of elegy for the old British variety circuit, set just as it was falling prey to broadcast and pop cultures in the 1950s, the play is itself of a type that has gone out of fashion. It is a work of modest yet serious ambitions, aiming not for revelation or revolution but, in a nutshell, to fulfil Lord Reith’s principles for the early BBC: to inform, educate and entertain.
We see a day and evening backstage at a variety theatre in Leeds. A new headliner, a radio-popular chanteuse, has been parachuted in over the established, drunken, hell-raising comic, leaving the long-suffering theatre manager to explain this to the furious funny man; the second-string comedian gains respite from his domineering wife by flirting with a dancer; half of the musical double-act is having a breakdown; the Watch Committee (the local board of censors) are in the house, and the speciality act has never been all there to begin with. The row about billing and who has the No 1 dressing room becomes (thoughtfully, but none too subtly) a series of meditations on culture, commerce and class. Singer Janey wonders whether people buy her records because they like them or merely because they have been conditioned to; comic Reg bellows that his audience love him because he is of their stock and speaks to their experience of poverty combined with dignity and even defiance.
Nicky Henson’s touring production for Love & Madness is not entirely at home in the wide, low Arcola space, playing in one corner with the seating arranged in a way that maximises distance from the stage whilst all but minimising visibility. But the cast of eight work well, with the role-doublings structured so as to be enjoyable in themselves. Author Shepherd takes the unshowy role of the manager; long-time associate Jim Bywater relishes every aspect of Reg, from the three-sheets-to-the-wind acting to the yelling and even to the unflattering full nudity. Ultimately, though, that echo of Reithism is significant: this feels like a 1970s one-off TV play manqué. Shepherd is a man of unimpeachable integrity, with a golden thread of pure and simple giving-a-damn running through all his work; alas, in this too he may now be out of his time.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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