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Well no-one can say I didn’t give Edward Bond a fair chance. Eight plays in 18 months. In truth, I’d have probably given up at 7 if it wasn’t for Patrick Stewart leading this one. I feel perfectly entitled to put him in my ‘problem playwrights’ box with Pinter and Chekov, turn the key and move on.

This is a play about Shakespeare (or is it?). I have no idea if it’s historically accurate (how could you know?). Will has returned to Stratford and given up writing – ‘I have nothing left to say’. He hates his daughter and his wife and he’s just waiting to die. It’s the early 17th century, the time of the Enclosures Act, so a land grab by the rich is in full progress and Shakespeare is seemingly complicit as a landowner who turns a blind eye. He’s also watching as a young girl on the run is on the receiving end of rough justice, first beaten, then killed and displayed in public. He’s wrestling with his conscience.

It’s as obtuse as all the other Bond plays. I’m happy to be challenged in the theatre, but I can’t help feeling that this is just covering up the fact that he doesn’t really have anything profound or coherent to say. The first half is extraordinarily dull. If you return for the second (and a lot didn’t) it briefly comes alive in a London tavern scene where contemporary playwright Ben Johnson (an excellent Richard McCabe) gets Shakespeare drunk and rants about anything and everything.

There are some good performances, but Stewart is wasted in this. He’s played it before and quite why he wanted to return to it is beyond me. There’s nothing wrong with the production, it’s just not a good play. I’m prepared to accept that it’s a matter of taste, but it is without a conscience that I give up on a playwright who just doesn’t really do anything for me. To see any more Bond would be just masochistic, I’m afraid.

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One of the things I learnt when I was introduced to the work of Edward Bond by last year’s Cock Tavern Theatre season was that you don’t need the word ‘enjoy’ to describe his plays. You need ‘uncomfortable’, ‘challenging’, ‘bleak’, ‘intense’……but not ‘enjoy’. I don’t go to the theatre purely for enjoyment, which last night was just as well !

The relationship between Pam and Len, a one night stand who becomes a lodger, is at the heart of this play. He’s kind, tolerant and obsessed with her but she’s not interested. She has a baby by Fred, but he’s not interested in her (or the baby) either. Her parents ignore each other; in fact her father ignores everyone.

At the core of the play is the infamous scene of infanticide; a bunch of lads, including Fred, kill Pam’s neglected baby for no reason. Fred takes the rap and the play continues during and after his incarceration. He continues to treat Pam with disdain and Len continues to be besotted with her. There are other less cruel but equally tense moments in the play – a child allowed to cry and cry and a number of industrial scale arguments. The final scene is virtually wordless, yet it’s the scene which explains most. It was written to show us the post-war ‘broken Britain’ and is now being staged in the post-credit crunch ‘broken Britain’.

Though it’s occasionally funny, it’s mostly an uncomfortable ride, but to my surprise it kept my attention for over three hours; I was rarely distracted and never bored. This is largely because of the brilliant naturalistic dialogue, impeccable staging by Sean Holmes and superb performances. Lia Saville and Morgan Watkins are outstanding as Pam and Len, the crucial relationship at the centre of the play. Susan Brown and Michael Feast are also excellent as Pam’s dysfunctional mother and father. Callum Callaghan pulls off the difficult task of conveying Fred’s complexity.

Bond’s programme / play text essay makes it clear where he’s coming from. A lot of what he says makes sense, though in my view it’s a bit simplistic and one-sided. It’s too easy to blame the morally unacceptable on ‘society’; it’s people who commit such hideous acts and they can’t be let off the hook that easily. However, the play makes its point and hopefully will make people think, discuss and argue and theatre’s there for that as well as enjoyment. It was uncomfortable, challenging and bleak – but I’m glad I went.

A gold star to the Lyric Hammersmith for a timely staging.

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Until last month, I hadn’t seen an Edward Bond play. Given that I’ve been an avid playgoer for more than 30 years, this tells you something about how often his plays are put on in the UK. This is a British dramatist who has written 50 plays. He appeared at joint number 12 in the list of  ‘most selected playwrights’ in the NT’s poll of 20th Century drama (somewhat ironically with Caryl Churchill, whose A Number I also saw last month – revived after just 8 years!) and his play Saved was ‘the most selected play’ of 1965. You’d be forgiven then for thinking that this season is at the NT or the Royal Court, but no it takes a tiny but enterprising unfunded pub theatre in Kilburn to mount an ambitious season of six of his plays, including a brand new play Bond has written for them, another he’s especially re-written and Bond himself directing one of the plays, with a season ticket that enables you to see them for c.£8 each with free programmes and a photocopy of the new play!

The Pope’s Wedding

This was the second to be mounted, but the first I saw (somewhat appropriately, as it was Bond’s first play back in 1962). At first I thought it might have influenced Pinter, then I realised The Caretaker and The Birthday Party pre-dated it, so it might be the reverse influence.

It is a sort of rural Pinter, featuring a bunch of young men growing up angry in a rural backwater. Unfortunately, there are an awful lot of scenes and scene changes which destroy the narrative flow and pace of the piece and it takes a long time to turn from a picture of rural life to the menace that ensues. Having said this, some of the staging by Conrad Blakemore was outstanding – particularly a cricket match brought to life on a pocket-handkerchief stage.

The real reason for seeing it though is a wonderful ensemble of young actors who quite took my breath away. Amongst them, Tim O’Hara was magnificent as Scopey and well matched by Rebecca Tanwen’s Pat and veteran John Atterbury as Allen. For the second time in a week – the other being Love on the Dole the previous week at the Finborough – British acting talent shone brightly.

Olly’s Prison

This 1990’s screenplay gets it’s UK stage premiere and it’s a much better play than The Pope’s Wedding. The psychologically complex story starts with a man murdering his daughter after a 30-minute monologue during which she just stares silently. We move to the prison where he is now incarcerated and to the death of a cellmate in which he is implicated. He is confronted by the cellmate’s mother, who has taken in her son’s victim, and goes on to develop a relationship with her. His dead daughter’s boyfriend, now a policeman, colludes with the cellmate’s victim to frame the man we first meet ranting at his scary daughter! Still with me? In the end we’re left to question who really are the victims.

Well, actually, I found it a fascinating piece and it was extremely well staged by Gareth Corke. The performances were again outstanding. Ewan Bailey was excellent as murdering Mike with Melissa Suffield (until recently Lucy Beale in East Enders) pulled off the tough task of spooking us with her stare for half-an-hour as his daughter. Robin Berry was great as older Frank the boyfriend (as the younger Frank, he was rather hampered by a dreadful wig!), as was James Kenward as cellmate Smiler and Frankie McGinty as his victim Olly. Elicia Daly’s and Charlotte Fields delivered fine characterisations of the women in all their lives.

The Under Room

This third play takes place in the pub’s cellar. We had to go up one flight of stairs, through the theatre during rehearsals for the next play (with the playwright in attendance) and back down two flights of stairs! It’s a hugely atmospheric space with a real soundscape of cellar machinery in action.

This fairly recent play is set 67 years in the future. A stranger breaks into a woman’s house and she comes embroiled in his world. He owes money to a man who has assisted in his illegal entry into the country; this man may be a corrupt policeman or member of the army in what is clearly a police state. It’s all a bit difficult to get into, particularly as the stranger is played by a dummy with an actor in view speaking the lines from behind and occasionally coming forward to dress / undress the dummy.

I enjoyed the atmosphere and it’s well played by the cast of three, but I can’t say I found the play particularly accessible or illuminating.

The Fool

This is actually a biographical play about 19th century poet John Clare. In the first act, we see the events that influenced and preceded his writing. In an earlier recession, the poor rise up and rob the gentry in order to buy food to live. Some are imprisoned and hung, but Clare remains free. In the second act, we see him in London under the patronage of the rich and feted for his poetry. Back in East Anglia he goes insane and ends his days in an asylum.

Like The Pope’s Wedding, it’s the performances that make the evening; they’ve again assembled a terrific company of 17 to play the 37 parts and amongst them I was hugely impressed by Ben Crispin as Clare, James Kenward (also excellent in Olly’s Prison) as Darkie / Jackson and Rosina Miles as Patty. There is some excellent staging, particularly a bare-fisted boxing match (fight movement Lawrence Carmichael) which had you on the edge of your seat. I was gripped for the whole 2 hours 45 mins, despite the intensely uncomfortable benches!

There Will Be More

Before this play could start we had to wait for the pub’s Sunday lunchtime one-man band to finish his set. There was something surreal about standing and waiting whilst he played Irish songs to a bunch of heavy drinkers, some of which were indulging in a sort of swaying / dancing – one woman banging her stick loudly on the pub table. Maybe this was intentional?! 

This is the world premiere of Bond’s new play. In the first 20-minute act we get a double infanticide and a rape. After the interval and eighteen years have passed, things quieten down for a while before another rape, a murder and a spot of incest!

I think Bond is making a point about the eternal cycle of war, but for me he obscures this so much, which seems rather pointless if you’re trying to make a point!  Again, the staging and performances are excellent, with Stephen Billington, Helen Bang and Timothy O’Hara (who also played Scopey in The Pope’s Wedding) pulling off the difficult task of making this all seem believable. 

Red Black & Ignorant

This 1980’s play is again spoilt by the obfuscation of its meaning. It appears to tell us the story of one man’s journey from life to death, trying to make an anti-war point but this time losing me by making me feel like I’m being preached at and patronised. It consists of  nine short scenes with occasional dialogue spoken direct to the audience.

It’s again effectively staged and well acted. Andrew Lewis as ‘Monster’, whose life we appear to be following, is excellent (with terrific make-up by Jess Harling), Melanie Ramsay is suitably spooky as Mother / Wife and Alex Farrow’s transition from Boy to Son is impressive (the character’s titles illustrate my earlier point, I think). Like There Will Be More, I’m afraid I think they are let down by the material.

So there you have it. I think I’ve given Bond a fair chance, but I’m not at all convinced by either the plays or the playwright. Like Pinter and Churchill, as he develops he loses me. This could be because I’m as thick as shit, of course, but it could be that he was becoming less creative and clouded this with obscurity and obfuscation (yes, that word again!) or it could be a sign of intellectual arrogance. Whatever it is, give me the American 20th century greats – Miller, Tennessee Williams and O’Neill – or British contemporaries like Jez Butterworth and Roy Williams any day of the week.  I gave him the benefit of the doubt at the outset, but based on six plays and his programme notes / essays, I think I can understand why he has been ‘neglected’ and considered ‘difficult’. He’ll certainly go into MY difficult playwrights list with Pinter, Churchill, Chekhov and Shaw.

That notwithstanding, a standing ovation for the Cock Tavern and its artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Jones for their ambition, the accessibility (£50 for six plays and programmes!), the opportunity to review a playwright’s work in this way and for some terrific staging and wonderful performances. A fascinating Autum project.

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