POSTWAR, COLD-WAR, ANGRY AND RESTLESS
Ever since our manufacturing and metal-bashing trades eroded, we have seen a sentimentality about old industrial Britain: the glory days when a lad could leave school and go straight to the factory, work hard, drink in a pub until thrown out by a responsible landlord with the words “We’ve got us licence to think of!” , and court his girl in a Sunday suit. In the age of neets, hoodies and vertical drinking barns it is easy to cast a rosy glow.
So here’s a fine corrective: a revival of Alan Sillitoe’s brilliant, brawling 1950‘s novel – adapted here by Amanda Whittington – about a working-class anti-hero smouldering and swaggering in the Raleigh factory in Nottingham. He is sleeping with his workmate’s wife Brenda, and adds her sister Winnie to his conquests when Brenda has to abort their baby; for light relief he takes up with Doreen from the hairnet factory, who tends him when he is beaten up by Winnie’s squaddie husband at the Goose Fair.
Arthur’s a liar. a cheat, selfish, and full of immature resentment – “screw the world before it does the same to you” . If he had an unfaithful wife himself he’d “give her two black eyes and send her back to her Mum”. Sillitoe’s gift, chiming with the theatrical age of Angry Young Men, was to place this apparently unlikeable chap squarely as a symbol of a restless, postwar and cold-war society losing direction and faith in the future. The novel was much praised but – I just remember it – the lurid paperback was one which schools and parents snatched away from impressionable young eyes.
All this is caught wonderfully well in Tony Casement’s production: fast, spare and vigorous, set by Sara Perks in a cinematic curve of lighted frames which come and go, its mood enhanced Adam P.McCready’s haunting soundscape mixing deep harsh worrying notes with jaunty pop. When Brenda suffers in the scalding bath, downing gin as her friends labour to abort her and she worries that the steam is taking off the wallpaper, “Tulips from Amsterdam” maunders out its brainless rhythms and Arthur prowls, disturbed and helpless, in the foreground. And brilliantly too, even though the evening lasts only two hours including an interval, Casement allows the underlying feeling to grow in long, silent moments of isolated tableau.
Patrick Knowles is a tremendous Arthur: cocky and carefree on the surface, but in moments of soliloquy opening up a deep well of insecurity. The bike factory with its “smell of grease and new cut steel, capstan lathes that make your brain ache” is his realm by day; the feel of warm women his delight by night. There is real tenderness in his relationship with Brenda (Gina Isaac), and real, sulky adolescent conscience in his cry of “I never like to do harm. It upsets me underneath”.
But much of the living strength of the production comes from the inspired use of a volunteer “community chorus”. Six actors play the twenty speaking parts, but around them swirl and stroll and brawl and bicker many more, every move directed with intense care (Lee Crowley is movement director). They fill the picture, never distracting from the central tale but giving it a filmic, urban reality.
box office 01206 573948 to 24 May