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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Tinderbox
Bush Theatre Spring 2008

Lucy Kirkwood's first play is an attempt to blend farce, political allegory, and flirtation with the borders of taste in the Joe Orton and Martin McDonagh mode. It manages to raise a few chuckles, but is otherwise not particularly successful in any of its ambitions.

In a dystopian not-too-distant future, parts of Britain are underwater while the rest swelters in tropical heat, food is scarce, and daily life in Bradford is one uninterrupted riot (not too much difference there, then). Butcher Saul and his dim-witted ex-pornstar wife Vanessa get by, mainly by making good use of the occasional errand boy in the manner of Sweeney Todd.

The newest shop assistant is Perchik, a refugee from the now separate island of Scotland, who proves a little more resilient than his predecessors and also more ambitious, with an eye on both the shop and the boss's wife. What plays out is a black comic string of plots and counterplots as the men jockey for dominance and the girl.

Except that it's not really very funny or, for that matter, all that black. Once we get the point of where the meat is coming from, there isn't a whole lot more to shock us, and the Tom-and-Jerry (or, perhaps, more like the Simpsons' Itchy and Scratchy) style sparring between the two men lacks the kick of true slapstick.

Much is made, in a mocking way, of Saul's vision of his shop as his empire and of his extreme commitment (his constant violation of them aside) to the traditional values of Britishness, giving the play an ill-fitting mantle of allegory for the irrelevance and even grotesqueness of 19th-century thinking in the 21st century.

It's not just the appearance of some dubious meat onstage that raises thoughts of beating a dead horse here, nor the memory that John Osborne got there more successfully fifty years ago that keeps this aspect of the play from working. It is more the sense that it really has nothing to do with the rest of the play, in tone or meanings.

The Bush Theatre has been redesigned for this production, creating a very small and shallow playing space, giving director Josie Rourke little option than to repeatedly put her actors in a line facing front, and this in turn forces a declamatory style on them, with little opportunity for either realistic characterisation or the knockabout action of farce. Jamie Foreman (Saul), Sheridan Smith (Vanessa) and Bryan Dick (Perchik) are really left stranded there onstage for too much of the evening, doing their best with too little.

Any theatre committed to the development and presentation of new writing must risk the occasional failure. For decades the Bush has produced an extraordinarily high percentage of successes and undoubtedly will continue to do so. This, I fear, will not be one of them.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Tinderbox - 2008