LOWLIFE , HIGH DRAMA AND DRINK
The candles on our tables gutter in their glass shades, hands tighten round drinks, spurts of relieved laughter meet dry jokes, stillness respects moments of poignant humanity. Moody monochrome views of a battered 1957 London never distract from the man onstage. It’s good to be transported, and have a world built for you in words.
Douglas Post’s play suits the current theatrical zeitgeist, which seems to be in love with the lowlife glamour of sixty years ago. We have had Butterworth’s rock ‘n roll gangsters in the Mojo revival, Keeler and Stephen Ward chronicling the Profumo scandal, King Lear reimagined as a Kray brother down in Bath. Now, in the St James’ cosy downstairs cabaret space, comes this gorgeous little thriller. It is performed alone by the remarkable Simon Slater (how did this subtle actor get buried in Mamma Mia for four years? Even if he was also busy composing scores like the Olivier-nominated Constellations music?). Patrick Sandford , who first put this on at the Nuffield, directs.
The hero Derek is an emotional casualty of those unsettled postwar years: an ex-police photographer who spent the Blitz recording terrible mutilations, veiled the horrors with drink, blew his promotion, and ended up in peacetime photographing victims of more personal violence, and drinking even more. This is economically and unselfpityingly related, with just enough raw edges of emotion to prevent machismo or prurience. Jobless and broke in a bedsit, he receives a commission to follow and covertly photograph a young black woman, one of the Windrush immigrant generation crowding Notting Hill. From a mere meal-ticket she becomes his muse: when she is killed he plunges with naive indignation into a fetid nightclub underworld to find her persecutors.
In any virtuoso solo show – from Fiona Shaw to Dame Edna – there is double pleasure. You can be happily lost in the narrative itself, but on another level admire – as if in an Olympic arena – the lone performer’s emotional, physical and vocal stamina. Slater not only deploys a likeable, damaged Graham-Greeneish charm as the narrator, but evokes the others: he plays the saxophone with jazzy defiance as the American bandleader Bryant, swallows razor-blades as a Russian conjurer, and delivers a rattling Irish song-and-gag routine as McKinley the comic. In between, faultlessly, he is Derek: wrestling not only with a whodunnit but with his own lonely, bruised longing for beauty.
There are lovely grace-notes: references to Sputnik, the Coronation, the buzzing social and cultural changes. Once the jazzman, bitterly sneers “You wanna know about the future?” and plays a few raucous bars of Rock Around the Clock before spitting ‘My thing is dying!”.
As for the resolution, it is as realistically squalid as any Mickey Spillane fan could wish; yet then it twists, extraordinarily and almost redemptively. A good yarn, superbly told.
box office 0844 264 2140 http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk to 25 Jan Sponsor: Nourish