Posts Tagged ‘Clifford Odets’

We don’t see enough Clifford Odets plays in the UK, and when we do it’s the same two or three. Though not up there with the greatest 20th Century American dramatists – O’Neill, Tennessee Williams & Miller – his story and his work are interesting enough to warrant more.

This was his first play to be staged; he broke off writing Awake & Sing to produce it as a response to a taxi drivers strike. Odets was a communist and contemporary of Arthur Miller & Elia Kazan. In the US, it was staged by left-wing collective The Group and in UK by Unity Theatre, treading a similar path, whose legacy trust is supporting this rare revival – one of the trustees and former Equity president, actor Harry Landis, was at the White Bear Theatre last night to bring insight to a post-show Q&A.

It’s staged as a union meeting, with characters coming out of, and speaking from, the audience, broken up by vignettes where some of the characters tell their personal stories. In just 50 minutes, we see the tension between those who want to strike and those who don’t, together with the hardship that exists and would worsen should they do so, with swipes at the perceived oppressors and their apologists.

It’s production today is timely and the modern staging echoes this. I saw it in the same week as a fresh piece of agitprop, If You Won’t Let Us Dream…, at the Royal Court and, frankly, it’s better. Young director Christopher Emms has staged it ‘without decor’ and has drawn committed performances from his 11-person cast (large for the fringe). It’s particularly effective when the characters tell their personal stories direct to the audience, though the comments of other characters whilst they do jarred a bit with me.

It’s 30 years since this fascinating piece was last staged here, so lots of gold stars to the White Bear, the director and the company for giving us the opportunity and to the Unity Theatre Trust for supporting them.

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This is like looking at a 30’s Hollywood movie in 3D on a giant screen. The period detail is extraordinary. Unfortunately, in the first half at least, it’s a B movie without much of a story, a poor screenplay and three exaggerated central performances. It is fatally slow and even though it picks up after the interval, it’s too late to recover.

Having a dentist as your central character may be original but is hardly an enticing prospect (unless he is a sadomasochistic dentist like in Little Shop of Horrors, of course). This one’s a real wimp, with a nagging neglected wife, a manipulative father-in-law as benefactor and a tenant dentist who gets away with rent default. There’s another health practitioner in the building (I didn’t quite get his specialty, but it might be something to do with feet) and another neighbour with a fine selection of sharp ties. It’s an offstage character who might provide the clue to why the NT decided to stage this – a certain Mrs Hytner!

The dentist falls for his assistant, as does his father-in-law and the neighbour with sharp ties. His wife is prepared to forgive and forget. The father-in-law wants to  marry her. The neighbour wants a less committed but equally close relationship. The dentist is a wimp…..

I really was puzzled why Joseph Millson, Keeley Hawes and Jessica Raine over-acted. This makes it easy for Nicholas Woodeson to steal the show when he comes on and lights up the stage, though to be fair Peter Sullivan, Sebastian Armesto and Tim Steed do well bringing life to their supporting characters. Anthony Ward’s design is lovely, though so huge the characters do seem a bit lost.

I recall finding it a good play when I saw it forever ago in the West End, so I kept wondering if it was indeed a better play than this production revealed. Director Angus Jackson has form as a plodder (Desperately Seeking Susan – the case for the prosecution rests); perhaps a director with more experience of the great 20th Century American dramatists (not that Clifford – a name subsequently requisitioned forever by Victoria Wood for the classic Acorn Antiques – Odets is one) like Howard Davies might have made more of it.

Today’s word is ‘indifference’……

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