Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London E15
Opened 2 June, 1997

The Ascot Gold Cup of 1904 was won by a 20-1 outsider named Throwaway. I had always wondered whether this fact, gleaned from James Joyce's Ulysses and representing about one quarter of my entire knowledge of horse racing, would come in handy; at last Danny Miller, author of the "East End family story" at Stratford East, has vindicated my trivia-hoarding.

Throwaway is the story of the Maceys, a family of racecourse bookies of mixed Jewish-Irish blood, although not that mixed: elder son Aron, the wheeler and dealer, and brother Michael, the more otherworldly ex-junkie, each seem to have inherited the genes of only one parent. When a Tattersall's disciplinary hearing suspends the firm and imposes a fine upon them, desperate measures are called for: firstly, father Billy Macey's pitch is transferred into the name of the non-racing-minded Michael in order that business may continue; secondly, Aron colludes with crooked bookie Spicer to clean up on fixed races.

The all-male cast of characters blends together family and firm, but the trio of Maceys are at the heart of the play; Act Two begins with three duologues Billy/Aron, Billy/Michael (the inevitable rapprochement) and Aron/Michael which map out both the family tensions and the prospects for complete reconciliation. When a 20-1 outsider significantly named Throwaway appears on the race card and is supported by the family, we know that they are in a win-win situation: if the horse comes home, they clean up; if it fails, they are nevertheless bonded for good and all.

This is a simple, unpretentious family drama whose specialist knowledge of the bookies' world adds spice rather than footnotes. Stratford stalwart Kate Williams provides no-nonsense direction, with a lot of hand-acting involved: Brian Stephens's expansive gestures as Billy vie with Terence Beesley's fluid, intricate wide-boy movements as Aron, while Robert Putt as tic-tac man Long George (half of a sidekick double-act, in effect) gives his arm muscles a rest away from the course and acts from the shoulders. Beesley handles well Aron's more complex role as family peacemaker whilst coming to an individual awakening of his own in this entertaining, discreetly feel-good play which proves that the phrase "it's not big and it's not clever" can be a compliment.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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