Soho Theatre + Writers' Centre, London W1

Opened 4 November, 2009


There is something fundamentally ambivalent about Natasha Langridge’s play. On its uppermost narrative level, the idea of a love story between members of two opposing groups has been a classic at least since Romeo And Juliet. However, the Northern Irishman in me sees something hackneyed in “love across the barricades” plays... especially when a physical barrier divides the stage for much of the 80 minutes of Lisa Goldman’s production.
Pearl is a Romany girl living on a (legal) site in east London about to be cleared for the Olympic swimming pool; Joe is a gorger (house-dweller) who falls for both her and the culture. As he wants in, she wants out... out, at least, of her more or less arranged marriage; eventually, they run away together, but with no clear idea of where they may go or how live.
Langridge has researched the Romany world, and does not stint in her picture of a dignified culture with its own cherished heritage and codes. Far from being the thieving workshy pikeys of popular prejudice (embodied here by the character of Joe’s father), these Romanies work industriously but for themselves rather than as “wage slaves”, and Pearl’s mother grieves that her daughter will not find a husband after she has been “out a night”. Pearl herself coldly parodies the gypsy fortune-telling routine which her grandmother once engaged in sincerely (at first), and to which she herself resorts as a short-term moneymaker.
Yet this embodies the ambiguity in the play: Pearl ridicules the too-credulous kids she fleeces, but those kids’ sense of exotica also runs through Langridge’s writing. It is generously spiced with Romany words and locutions, such that the pronoun “ye” comes to chime as heavily and self-defeatingly as “thee” in lazy depictions of American Puritans or Amish. Joe’s account of the Romany fair at Appleby in Cumbria is rhapsodically overwritten.
Alex Waldmann may not be vocally convincing as Hackney boy Joe, but he gives the most physically articulate performance I have yet seen from him. Jade Williams, though rightly not a clichéd dark jewel of a figure, does not bewitch as Pearl needs to, in the way that Anna Carteret commands the stage as her grandmother... apart from a wildly misjudged, undignified dance interlude, which once again testifies to the outside-in perspective that hobbles the entire venture.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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