Friday, April 30, 2010
Pressure Drop at the Wellcome Collection
Pressure Drop, the first theatrical work to be staged at the Wellcome Collection, describes itself – fairly accurately – as "part gig, part play, part installation." Billy Bragg and his band provide live musical accompaniment to Mick Gordon’s play on Englishness, identity and what it means to come home.
The centre’s exhibition space, recently home to an exhibition on identity to which this is an apt coda, has been strikingly designed for the production by Tim Scutt; dotted around the room are three separate sets: a suburban living room, a pub and a chapel, all united by a great red rip which runs around the walls.
There is also a stage, on which Bragg and his band sit, providing songs that are interspersed with the scenes of the play. There is initially a bit of banter between Bragg and the audience - he starts by summing up promenade theatre for the uninitiated: “you walk up and down the room; if you see a light, go towards it” – but his presence and his playing soon becomes part of the fabric of the production.
The story itself is a (very) well worn one, but it is well-executed. Two brothers are reunited by a family funeral. One, Jon, has left home – a rundown, recession-hit town on the outskirts of London – some years back and has become successful trader in New York; the other, Jack, has stayed behind, married and had a son, but the recent loss of his job has left him adrift. Now Tony (a volatile David Kennedy), his friend since childhood, heavy-set, short-fused and confrontational, is trying to get Jack to run as local councillor for a far right party with a three-letter name and Jack, despite some reservations, can see the appeal, of regaining his voice, ceasing to be passive.
It’s fair to say his dad wouldn’t have approved. The recently deceased Ron, their reggae loving father – the title song by Toots and the Maytels is the music he’s requested for his funeral – regularly emerges from his coffin to offer sage advice from beyond the grave.
Gordon’s play is heavy-handed in places, particularly in its handling of a subplot involving a stolen knife and a stabbing, but the writing is also nicely textured and – mostly – free of didacticism. There are few hard and true lines, a lot of muddy middle ground. Jon is appalled at what Tony is asking Jack to do, but then he also lives a comfortable life, far away from the difficulties they face. Tony is not just a one-note thug, but a father who has lost a son, and through this lens his anger and his hate become more understandable, if not acceptable.
Though in many ways quite conventional, the play springs a few nice narrative surprises, which are well handled by director Christopher Haydon. The cast all give strong performances - particularly Justin Salinger as Jon, the ambivalent outsider, whose feels both distaste and longing for a place that is no longer his home – and the hybrid format, half gig, half play, really works. The pacing of the piece is well managed, with sufficient room left between the scenes for the audience to make their way around the space. But it’s the believability of the characters and their predicament, the warmth of the piece, which ends up shining through. The final scenes are moving and uplifting in equal measure (if a little too clean and contrived) and Bragg and his band lift it that little bit further.
Reviewed for musicOMH