'TIS PITY SHE'S A WHORE
Chelsea Centre, London SW10
Opened 29 July, 1997

Other than in circumstances relating to an act of God, "very good, considering..." are words which should never pass a reviewer's lips, pen or keyboard. No matter where a production originates, once it sets foot in a regular theatrical venue it is to be judged by those standards. Audiences do not pay for their tickets in order to make allowances.

Shock Tactics Theatre Company may be a hastily-coined name in which to dress up a production from Wilson's School, Wallington (with a cast augmented by members of the neighbouring High School for Girls and a clutch of professional actors); the moral knee-jerk which resulted in this production of John Ford's incestuous Jacobean tragedy 'Tis Pity She's A Whore being banned by the school may be deplorable in its timidity; however, they present themselves at the Chelsea Centre this week as any other company, and condescension in the case would do no favours.

The opening tableau of this modern-dress production looks more like Godber's Bouncers than Ford, with a quartet of sunglassed heavies looming amid a nightclub complete with booming techno; for an insane moment, I half-expected the announcement, "Lucky Eric's First Incestuous Attachment!" Otherwise, though, the proceedings are played straight until the final gunning down of Giovanni in a slow-motion Peckinpah/Tarantino homage.

Adam Davies as Giovanni, like so many of the company, does a fine job of conveying the emotion of his lines as he first confesses his taboo love for his sister Annabella then is ensnared in the web of his transgression, but often does not disentangle their knotty sense. In the role of Annabella, Catherine Brooks finds a more consistent line, but only truly begins to spark when confronted by bridegroom Soranzo about her pregnancy (a slight implausibility, as Brooks's frame is not simply waif-like but seems worryingly to verge on actual malnutrition).

Director Jeff Shaw is able to present us with his vision of the play, but is hamstrung in its realisation by a combination of his cast's lack of understanding and their adolescent self-consciousness; both the idiotic comedy of Elliot Taylor's Bergetto and the manifestations of sensuality feel more sheepish than anything else, and the actors consequently lack the assurance to engage with the vein of black comedy which surfaces periodically. The most impressive individual performance comes from 17-year-old Michael Pegler as Soranzo's villainous bodyguard Vasques; Pegler trumps even the professionals in the company with his cool, menacing control he will make a superb Iago one day soon.

The pacing is deadly slow; at least 20 of the 190 minutes could be saved by tightening up on cues, a further ten by speeding or dispensing with scene changes never in my life have I seen a director so senselessly squander final applause by devoting time to shifting furniture in blackout before a curtain call. Shaw and his charges are to be admired for their determination that their work be seen; I do not enjoy the harshness of such a verdict, but they have chosen to compete with dozens of other shows on the London fringe, and all in all are unfortunately unequal to the challenge.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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