This Be The Verse – Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Rikki Beadle-Blair has a reputation for putting tough subjects on stage and screen, from the difficult look at Jewish life across six decades and two continents in Shalom Baby, to dealing with violent racism and homophobia in the hard-hitting Bashment. Therefore Gutted was never going to be much different.
Coming out of rehab, celebrity Millwall reserve striker Matthew Prospect, faces the press and his family at a homecoming party on the council estate he grew up on in Bermondsey. His mother, however, fears he’s madder coming out of hospital that he was before he went in, not to mention that state of his three younger siblings. Over the next 24 hours Matthew’s return will unmask deep twisted family secrets and immoralities among them and their own nearest and dearest. But who’s to blame in creating this family beyond dysfunction?
The set itself is simple yet striking and effective. It appears as nothing more than three mirrored walls creating an atmosphere of exposure and adding to the sense of infinity, reflection, and memory that is at the core of the play. There is also a wonderful surprise that the back flat holds, though sparingly used, creating some really compelling visuals throughout despite the set’s sparseness.
Despite this clean glass-box look there is nothing classy or sleek about this play, but then again neither is the council estate in Bermondsey. There’s very bad language, crass toilet humour, and unlawful misdemeanour left, right, and centre. But this isn’t your average play about Britain’s working class. Whereas others desperately try to paint martyrs or make cardboard savages of them, Beadle-Blair manages to create woefully flawed yet charmingly human characters. Undoubtedly his own South London upbringing has been a huge inspiration in moulding them. They are rounded, real, and deep; a mean feat when you consider that the narrative consists of no more than five main protagonists, let alone the four supporting characters who come across just as complex.
The written and directional approach that Beadle-Blair’s takes in creating these life-like people is through the use flashbacks that interject the plot progression and also slicken the pace. These provide comprehensive and essential background. It’s a little awkward at first, but it doesn’t take long to get what’s going on, especially when you notice the prompts from the screens upstage that use family album photographs to illustrate which time period is being acted out.
The characters are also bolstered by a fantastic cast. It’s really difficult to single out a supreme performance as each play their role with unwavering force. Louise Jameson is brutal as Bridie, the domineering, patient, and guilt-tripping matriarch. James Farrar’s Matthew manages to simmer with the fear of his own destructive urges and secrets. And Frankie McCluskey is excellently loveable as the happy-go-lucky geezer and dutiful dad Mark, to mention three prime performers. But overall you couldn’t ask for a stronger cast who shoulder the incredibly demanding roles with talent and candour.
The only fault with this play is that Beadle-Blair has never been the most eloquent of playwrights. Abstracts aren’t exactly subtle; the naming of the brothers after the four Apostles, the fact that their surname is Prospect, and so on. Also, dialogue can be clunky and stilted with some of the plot points more than a little contrived, far-fetched, and cataclysmic. This is most apparent in the play’s ending. With individual stories starting to go a little AWOL, it was always going to be a forced task to tie-up everything to a neat point at the end. As insightful as the final result is, it also feels a little ridiculous.
However, criticism about finer writing points are almost inconsequential as, what Beadle-Blair has always done, he manages to extrapolate unexpected narratives and talking points from uncomfortable and unforgiving subjects with unmatched dexterity and punch. (Without giving too much away) I can’t think of any other play that manages to combine a maelstrom of issues such as class, gender, masculinity, race, sexuality, homophobia, love, relationships, transphobia, family, child abuse, religious zeal, sexism, and paedophilia with such immense prowess; none of the above feels shallow, rushed, or sensationalist. Neither can I think of anyone who could possibly do it better than Beadle-Blair.
For all the faults you could pick at it, ultimately Gutted is an emotionally and intellectually yet enjoyably challenging gauntlet. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll rage, you’ll sympathise, and you’ll feel incredibly uneasy, shocked, and sickened. But London’s theatre scene is all the more better for it. Beautifully fucked-up and wildly compelling, this is a play of extraordinary ambition and guts. One of the most intense and powerful plays I’ve ever seen.
Gutted plays at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, E15 1BN, until 25 May 2013. Tickets are £21 (concessions available). To book visit www.stratfordeast.com.