Arcola Theatre, London E8
Opened 26 / 29 November, 2010
*** / ***
“It’s very vile,” remarked my companion in the interval of The Cradle Will Rock. After a shocked second I realised she had in fact said, “very Weill”. That, certainly, it is. Marc Blitzstein’s subject matter – “all kinds of prostitution: the press, the church, the courts, the arts, the whole system” – was suggested to him by Bertolt Brecht, and the resulting show with its militant Kurt Weill-esque score premiered in New York in 1937 in a version directed by Orson Welles, having been first funded then cut by the Federal Theatre Project.
Its choice is a typically forthright one by the Arcola’s artistic director Mehmet Ergen as the final main-house presentation before the venue moves to a new address in January. Ergen has always responded energetically to challenges, and after a funding setback of his own opened this solid production on a bare week’s rehearsal. Staging its portrayal of the venal society of Steeltown, U.S.A., in which all voices are either bought off or scared off by foundry mogul Mr Mister, is a deliberate counterblast to a current climate in which “the big society” is at best hard to see with the naked eye; its unabashed hymn to unionisation also chimes at a time when students across the country are reminding us of the force of collective action. There are no songs to stroll out of the theatre humming, though one or two to march out to, most notably “Joe Worker”, given a tremendous second-act rendition by Josie Benson.
The Arcola has always been conscious of its multicultural environs, and its downstairs studio currently hosts a production in which Kali Theatre Company’s patron goddess appears onstage in a comically stroppy incarnation. Gandhi And Coconuts centres on Asha, who finds a shocking difference between Goa where she grew up and married life in high-rise London with a husband who just wants to come home from the office, eat chicken with coconut, watch TV and fall asleep. Her empty days fill up when the eponymous Mahatma turns up at her door, explaining that since his death he has discovered the pleasures of the flesh and trying to persuade her to do likewise and consider herself for a change. He is followed by Kali and then her husband Shiva: cue debate, banter and divine assertiveness training. Bettina Gracias’ play has some fine initial ideas, but does not really know where to take them; the final half-hour more or less goes on a sight-seeing tour of all the possible ways in which Asha’s story could develop.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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