THE CUTTING OF THE CLOTH Southwark Playhouse, SE1

A BESPOKE PREMIERE, TRIBUTE TO A TRADE

1953, a tailors’ basement workshop under Dover Street. Five people work eighty hours a week or longer. Out front, unseen, the smooth cutters and measurers greet bespoke clients; down here the “makers” work. In a set of breathtaking immediacy tools, clutter, and casual expertise come alive. Old Spijak the Pole works cross-legged on his bench as his forefathers did, sewing by hand and despising Eric – faster, earning more – for his sewing machine. Each maker has a “kipper”, a female assistant for cuffs and lowlier “ kipper-work”; Spijak’s is his daughter Sydie, Eric’s is Iris. Maurice, Spijak’s tyrannized new apprentice, spends his lunch-hour in the bare washroom writing a play…

For Michael Hastings – who died only in 2011 – was such a teenage apprentice to his father’s trade, though he became a distinguished Royal Court playwright (famous or TOM AND VIV). This slice-of-life play, never before performed, emerges from that youth. But Two’s Company and director Tricia Thorns love forgotten, truthful testimonies of the past, notably with workplace themes: LONDON WALL brought a 1931 law office alive, WHAT THE WOMEN DID gave us WW1 munitions-girls.

So it seems a period piece, larded with snatches of ‘50s pop and references to clients like Macmillan, Charles Clore and the impresario Henry Sherek, who was so large that at one point Sydie and Maurice stand side-by-side as Eric drapes the basted (tacked) jacket over both. But it bites because then, it was social realism: a portrait of a transitional moment. Spijak , powerfully played in an (at first) improbable accent by Andy de la Tour, is devoted to hand-stitching, persecuting his apprentice (James el-Sharawy) for not sitting cross-legged enough, being left-handed and insufficiently Jewish. His craft has, through disappointments we gradually glimpse, become his obsessive sole pride.

Eric (Paul Rider) is light-footed and brisk (all the cast are uncannily convincing as lifelong craftsmen, trained up by a modern bespoke tailor). He gets his joys rather in the unseen toffs he dresses: at one point, glorilusly, puts on Harold Macmillan’s new jacket and demonstrates how he allowed for the sloping shoulders of the Housing Minister , and how it would work when he was on the grouse-moor, with proudly double-lined pockets to put dead birds in. He dreams of Ascot and the Mirabelle and (with a Hancock echo) is never happier than with a Racing Gazette and “the old Puccini knocking the lid off me gramophone”. The two “kippers” are Alexis Caley as the quietly sceptical Sydie – Spijak’s daughter, taken from school at 14 to replace a mother dead from overwork – and Abigail Thaw, a marvellous drop-dead comedienne as Iris who feeds the pigeons and dreams of the seaside. And, it turns out, of Eric.

At first the wealth of detail – facings, inlays, gorges – and the noisy altercations threaten to lag or mystify; but it becomes absorbing, they become your own workmates in the L-shaped intimate room. Brown parcels of work thud down, chucked from the front office, goose-irons and blocks and half-jackets are nimbly manipulated so that the never-still movement of continuing work beneath every line and silence is masterful. We see regrets and griefs, the decline of Spijak, the progress of Maurice from victim to acolyte and beyond. A theme – unexpected in Hastings’ Angry-Young-Man, Osborne-and-Wesker generation – is how sweated labour in a time of change can be perpetuated by the exploited craftsmen’s own deep pride in expertise, and condemn those who could have escaped or embraced new technology to crippling lives. Spijaks’ father “died on a bench in Warsaw, happy doing what he could do best”.

Neither a sentimental threnody for dying craft or a shout of socialist rage , it is idiosyncratic, human, funny, sad. Near the end switchbacks of comedy surround a private tragedy and twist back to a lesser one. Thorns’ direction and the cast handle this brilliantly.

Box Office 020 7407 0234     http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk    to 4 APril

RATING   four  4 Meece Rating

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