Theatre Review: 179 Hackney Road (CLF Art Café, London)

Promotional image. Courtesy of The BRIT School.

Promotional image. Courtesy of The BRIT School.

Rating: ***

You cannot fault the Bridge Theatre Company for their vision. In 2008 this company was created specifically for students graduating from Croydon’s The BRIT School to have an opportunity to work in a professional theatre environment before moving onto the next stage of their careers. They engage in all aspects of putting on a fringe production: not just acting, but booking venues, sorting out funding and promotion etc. They also support new writing, this time working with acclaimed radio playwright Frazer Flintham as their third new writing commission.

As a vehicle for showcasing up and coming talent from the school, the first thing you notice about this production is that it’s as striking as it is inspired. After all, it does employ some industry professionals in order to give their students this valuable experience. Susannah Henry’s set is an empty phantom jigsaw of shelves and frames that gives the production room to swiftly switch between the three eras that the play is set over – the 1960s, 1980s, and the present – with only a few props and the mere suggestion of the characters and their outfits.

Paul Edwards’ direction also does well to traverse the decades. Having a select few characters from all or just two of the time periods present on stage for the majority of the play isn’t exactly ground breaking. But he handles it excellently making sure you’re aware of the geographical anchor of the play’s remit, but never lets their omnipresence distract or get in the way of what is actually happening. It really gives a sense of fleeting lives; the people just the ghosts of someone else’s story.

However, Henry’s set and Edwards’ direction, like the address of the old pub all the action takes place in, are two of the few things that loosley holds the three narratives together. There is nothing more that links them apart from each story dealing with issues of prejudice and status; belonging, racism and feminism in the 1960s; class and race in the 1980s; and a little bit of everything plus the fear of obscurity in the present. These explorations, however, don’t bring anything to these topics that has not been done before, gaining no new ground. Furthermore, with there being no obvious singular destination for the narratives to reach, the pace drags as it all feels a little futile; it’s nothing more than three tenuously bound period dramas.

However, Flintham does write all his characters incredibly well. You very quickly and easily gauge the size and personalities of them without the need for strenuous assumption or laborious back story. They might not be the most complex of people, but neither are they shallow. You don’t have to do much work to connect, understand, or engage with each. Therefore, despite the grumbles about the text, you still feel like you’ve been on a journey with each of the social groups from each decade. You really feel the loss, betrayal, and acceptance of fate of each respective story, which leaves the audience with quite some poignant reflection at the end of it all.

Being a student production some of the performances are inevitably a little weak. One or two had problems with diction and projection, whilst others just felt wooden or over-acted. However, part of could this be down to issues of confidence as everything became stronger and improved as the play progressed. When you think about it, this is an exciting but no doubt daunting opportunity for them.

But there were several stand-out performances from the outset. Louis Livesey-Clare is suave and confident as the Mod-styled Sid, and Ashleigh Berry’s dippy yet friendly beauty technician manages to find a soul and personality beneath the blonde and pink veneer of what could have easily been a two-dimensional character (helped, of course, by Flintham’s writing). But it’s Sarah Vaughan’s 1980s feisty bad-girl-gone-good that is as effortless as they come and really steals the show. She revels in her character but manages to find space to build in Sandra’s vulnerabilities and the hold her past has over her. Vaughan delves into the complexity and conflicts of her character and brings them to the fore, but always maintains a strong empathy that keeps her beguiling throughout.

It’s not the perfect play or the perfect cast. The fact the experience lacked by the company is made up for in enthusiasm means it’s rough around the edges compared to the other professional fringe productions they aspires to compete against. But with a script that, despite is faults, is still emotional and full of well written and interesting characters, and a few star turns from the young cast, you can’t go wrong with this show.

179 Hackney Road plays at the CLF Art Café, London, SE15 4ST, until 1June 2013. Tickets are £8 (concessions available). To book visit www.clfartcafe.org.

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