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Wellcome Centre and On Theatre present


Pressure Drop

 

 


by Mick Gordon

 


Music and Songs by Billy Bragg

 


Director - Christopher Hayden

 


Wellcome Centre

19 April - 12 May 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE IMPOSTERSary Couzens

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

This play has been staged to coincide with the Wellcome Centre’s Identity Project and is the first such performance ever to be staged there. They’ve done wonders with the performance area, which was prior to this event, gallery space and they’re hoping this will be the first of many more such happenings. I call it a happening because it’s always encouraging when socially aware theatre is put on anywhere and it’s especially encouraging to find it staged in a space not formally designated for it.


The fact that assessing this play takes more consideration that most signifies that it is a well written and constructed one. Whether it is successful depends on what angle you assess it from. One of Bragg’s contentions is that in England, it now seems the pressure is on the white working class, as everyone else seems to be getting on, and they’ve somehow, been left behind, so it’s unclear where they belong or if they even belong anywhere at all. This brings Bragg and playwright Mick Gordon to other questions, such as, ‘Do you have a community?’ A National Identity?’, ‘What do you do if your moral and physical landscape disappears? and ‘What does it mean to belong?’
Passionate singer songwriter Billy Bragg, from Barking, Essex, who’s always championed the working class, as, like me, he is of them, abhors what he refers to not as racism, but social exclusion. As the collaborative force behind Mick Gordon’s ‘part play, part installation, part gig,’ his input is invaluable. Bragg’s music and the social impetus he lends is a crucial part of this mix in part, because Gordon’s characters are more representative of types of people in specific situations rather than multi-dimensional characters in their own right, as the premise of this moral play does not allow us to see any sides of them which might serve to cloud an objective assessment of their life circumstances.


Jack, the pivotal character of this play, as the decision between right and wrong rests with him, is an unemployed white working class man with a wife and son, who lives in ‘a working class town on the periphery of London’ in the home he grew up in with his family and mother, fondly referred to as Nana. His father, Ron an 80 year old war veteran, has passed away and the family is understandably, on edge as they prepare for his funeral. Death always brings with it reassessment for the living and Jack is not happy with his life. His wife Jacqui still seems youthful, though impending middle age angst is bringing unforeseen complications. Their 14 year old son George may seem a tad refined at times, but Nana obviously has principles, being of the salt of the earth war generation and his parents are not people who eff and blind at the least provocation, so, thankfully, no ‘low’ class (to reflect Thatcherist labelling) clichés there. Jack is simply a man who is down on his luck in an environment in which his government tends to cover its tracks of the past by indulging the descendents of those they’d previously wronged, offering them better homes and often, opportunities than the natives of their own country.  Jack’s decision? To give in to his weaker nature, personified by his racist friend Tony who preaches hatred and revenge, and run for a local Council seat on a far right ticket, or do the ‘right thing’ and turn his back on the idea for the good of his soul and his son’s future.


The converse angle is this scenario is that Tony represents the easy way out. It’s easy to give in to weaknesses in the face of discouraging situations. But Jack need only to look at his old mum and dad to see examples of people who made the best of things under very bleak circumstances. Jack is not really a racist. How could he be when his dad brought them up on ska and reggae music, and feels, if he could come back again, he’d be black because they have ‘better food and music?’ But things were different in his dad’s day, when a working man could first hope, then eventually, realise simple dreams, of, for example, buying a home for his family. In the present, Jack resents the fact that, not only are jobs hard to find, but they are harder to pin down because they are, more often than not, offered to non-English applicants. Ironically, Mrs. Thatcher’s penchant for union destroying has cast its seeds into the present by enabling, sanctioning even, the breaking down of labour laws to the point that a formerly hard working guy I know who was in the Painting and Decorating business has long been unemployed because contractors prefer and are permitted to hire Polish and other Eastern European workers over their own country-men. Nothing wrong in that, you might say, especially as they’re EU. And after all, we’re a multi-cultural society now. However, the reason these workers are preferred over locals is simply because contractors are permitted to pay them lower wages. Just as greedy bankers steal tax payer’s money in order to pay themselves mega bonuses, on a smaller level, contractors shamelessly cheat working men of their rightful wages. This sort of thing is legal. While wrongs from the past are not reversible however much their descendents are compensated by governments of the present, but the poverty and low standard of living many of today’s working  class people are routinely subjected to is not only deplorable, but completely avoidable, and/or rectifiable.


In this play, however, everyone is more or less, trying to deal with whatever is before them in the moment, apart from Jack, whose decision will impact on his life and possibly, those of others, far into the future. His mother, meanwhile, must come to terms with the loss of her husband. Death, however devastating it can be to one’s survivors is natural, whereas, fear and hatred are not and with effort, can be overturned. From the outset, whatever class audience members may see themselves as being (if they’re inclined to consider such things) admit or not, they’ll be rooting for Jack to do what’s right.


Nana, as played by June Watson is instantly likeable and recognisable. She loves her family, but is not gushy about it, and is a get on with it type of person – traits inherent to the younger generation of WWWII. She’s in that transitory place between losing her husband and realising her life with him has ended, and it is easy to feel for her. Her grandson, George, played with surprising sensitivity by Shea Davis, is a welcome distraction. George, though younger looking is fourteen. Michael Gould’s Jack is right where he should be to enable the play to hinge on him, between a rock and a hard place true, but really, between being all he could be morally and giving in to the despair and habitual thinking that often leads to a dead end. His thirty-something wife Jacqui is a character who’s harder to fathom, possibly because she doesn’t really seem to know herself. Like many women, she prides herself on her appearance, particularly, her youthful figure, but there doesn’t seem to be much more to her than that, though she seems to wish there was more to her life. David Kennedy as Jack’s friend Tony has the job of playing Devil’s advocate, carrying the audience along on his bursts of humour, much of it coarsely defined, off the cuff racist remarks and gradually building, thoroughly absorbing, fear-inducing rage. Kennedy is a powerhouse in his role, and his work is commendable, as it’s his job to create feasible reasons why Jack feels as he does, as well as reality checks for the audience through his realistic sounding ‘street’ talk as to why the white working class people in his area feel threatened by the broadening multi-culturalism around them.  Perhaps it’s time we examined the fact that many of us would rather reside in an ‘all people like us’, i.e. of our ‘class’ environment and whether or not that’s a form of the tribalism we tend to attribute to ‘others.’ Craig Dowding, the unwitting offspring of this volatile man, dubbed Gay Barney due to his inherent lack of blatantly machismo tendencies is similarly effective in his role, which requires him to convey simultaneous hurt, confusion and a tendency towards potentially dad pleasing, senseless violence. Following the performance, when I spoke with Dowding, I was struck by how different he was from the character he played, though I suspected that Barney’s latent potential for sensitivity was drawn from his own. Justin Salinger is the son who returns from life abroad for his father’s funeral, who, in the natural imbalance of things, has done very well for himself, at least from a financial perspective, as a New York trader, though one must presume that Jon’s back history includes working as a City of London financier back in the days of deregulation. The angle of ‘abandoning’ one’s homeland allows for a more unspoken form of racism to emerge within their group when Kennedy as Tony taunts the more gentile Sallinger as Jon to nearly torturous extremes as the men and boys are allegedly, enjoying a friendly drink in their local. That leaves us with Jack and Jon’s late father, Ron, who effectively, oversees all of the action of this play, though only when characters ‘visit’ his body, lying in state in its coffin in the chapel. Pip Donaghy’s Ron is cheerily brash and confident, having grown up in an era of great deprivation, and done his duty in the war, after which he’d returned to a country promising more to working class people then  now, even in its sparse aftermath. There is a lovely scene in which Ron’s wife comes to the chapel alone, thinking aloud of their life together, ending in their dance to their favourite song, ‘Underneath the Arches,’ fondly sung by Bragg, accompanied by Ben Mandelson on stringed instruments, Simon Edwards on bass and Martyn Barker on drums and percussion.  


Music is a kingpin in the play, with Bragg and his band intermittently peppering the proceedings with social statements from a small stage situated appropriately opposite the pub setting. Bragg gives us an animated slice of Toots and the Maytalls 1960’s hit ‘Pressure Drop’ just in time for Ron’s funeral, Woody Guthrie’s powerful socialist WWII statement, ‘All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose’ in answer to Jack’s bid to stand for the far right and as we entered, a self-penned song about ‘home’, being, among many things, a place where you’ll always find a welcoming cup of ‘milky tea.’ Bragg’s songs have always inspired thoughts about identity and/or the need for social change.


Director Christopher Hayden has assured that signs of his guidance remain as unnoticeable as possible. But when performances are as well honed as they are in this production, praise applies.


The staging of this play makes use of some familiar devices which, nonetheless, work surprisingly well: a ‘dead’ character watching over and interacting with the living as memory in their minds, the enactment of ‘memory’ scenes between two characters in real time with no special props, which still manages to make it understood such scenes are a combination of now and then, and promenade style performance, often difficult to maintain, during which the audience moves from one end of the all standing space to another, following Bragg’s instructions, stopping off at one of three different performance areas, designed by Tom Scutt, to watch the actors enact their collective stories in their living room, pub and local chapel. A huge red slash mark running along the entire length of the space seems a cross behind bloodlines and a tattered English flag.


But it is the pre-play sounds, designed by Mike Furness, which set the scene, as we hear Margaret Thatcher’s authoritative voice assuring her listeners, in a deliberately misleading ‘we’re all in this together’ kind of way, that ‘we have the right to be unequal.’ This greed sanctioning statement is, appropriately, interwoven with the shouting, chanting and baiting in the name of one’s specific region, of a football match, football, allegedly, being an arena of the working man, who is far from ‘equal’ and in reality, is ‘unequal’ in the eyes of government and willing followers of Thatcher’s ethics.


In my estimation, there is only one vital observation which remains unaddressed in this play and that is the overriding tendency The Children of the Dammed, aka neo Thatcherites in London (often not born here, but filtered into ‘good’ jobs via ‘good’ schools) have of pigeonholing native Londoners based solely on the sound of their ‘accents,’ which, all too often these days, are openly mocked and stereo-typed by such so-called, well-educated individuals, aided and abetted by media. To try to shame the natives of a city you have effectively infiltrated, for the purpose of personal gain, into shelving their true identities should be viewed as criminal, as it’s the slaughter of tradition and real human values in the name of the almighty buck, which, to descendents of the initial followers of Thatcherism, means the buying into of pseudo ‘class.’ And I use the word ‘class’ in the original, naturally sensible, uncommon meaning of the word, which, from my perspective, signifies a valued sense of fair play and ‘live and let live’ which is often, inborn, and cannot be bought at any price.


As ‘old’ Labour politician Tony Benn stated in an interview in the 2007 documentary on new Labour Blair induced spin, Taking Liberties:


Peace and socialism and justice are not a destination. If you catch the right train you can’t get there. It’s an ongoing struggle for people to have some control over their own destiny.


‘Is there hope?’
Only if we do the effort...If you go around spreading “What’s the point?” “We tried, nothing happened”, we’ll go home and watch Big Brother on television...Because the media always go, ‘Why are you doing it? It’ll never work....
Let’s collectively beg to differ. Go experience this production for yourself, then try to think of what affirmative action you might take. Speaking of which, there will be a rally on May Day in Trafalgar Square to defend civil liberties and none other than Tony Benn will be speaking. See you there!

 

 

 

 

http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/the-identity-project/play-pressure-drop.aspx

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