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179 Hackney Road
Published on Friday, 17 May 2013

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2 stars

The Warren (venue website)
13 May, 5:30pm-6:30pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Parental Guidance. Under-17's must be accompanied by an adult.

There’s no award at the Brighton Fringe for “the most striking set” – but if there were, this play’s would be a shoo-in. The towering wooden construction, an elaborate labyrinth of shelving with the merest hint of MC Escher, fills the Warren’s sizeable stage – setting the tone for what’s certainly an ambitious, expansive play. Sadly, a few patchy performances and a script which needs some honing mean the overall experience is less awe-inspiring.

The action takes place entirely inside the eponymous 179 Hackney Road, and it starts in the modern day.  We know it’s the modern day, because of the less-than-subtle splattering of contemporary references: iPhone apps, tick; Twitter, tick.  Before long, the scene changes, and we’re seeing the same building back in the 1950’s (the Coronation, tick, teddy boys, tick), and finally Thatcher’s 80’s, complete with filofaxes, shoulder-pads, and Don’t You Want Me Baby.

It seems that number 179 has always been a café – and, despite the boarded-up door which appears in the play’s publicity shots, it’s always been a relatively swanky one.  And there’s the first slight disappointment: a sense of an issue the play has toyed with, but hasn’t quite managed to address.  One man talks about the profound deprivation to be found on the other side of the street, but we don’t see a lot of that conflict within the café’s walls.

Still, there were a few really good ideas in the script.  We see a clever bit of reverse prejudice in the 1950’s, when a black postal worker refuses to shake the hand of a teddy boy who he assumes must surely be a racist.  The contemporary scenes had a knowingness to them, a sense of how cosseted we’ve become when the worst thing that happens in life is that you can’t connect to wi-fi.  And while the big cultural signposts are laid on with a trowel, there are some subtler references which truly enhance the mood: the way that coffee is exotic in the 50’s, or the mention of the riots in 1981.

But for a 90-minute play, not an enormous amount actually happens.  Despite the fact not much actually happens, the most important plot developments are all crammed into the last few minutes, with the bloody resolution of the 1950’s storyline feeling especially out of proportion to the slight sense of tension that’s been developing up till then.  And – beware, this is a mild spoiler – the 2013 story turns on the fact that London is besieged by bombs hidden in “blue Vauxhall Astras”.  Why were the terrorists so attached to a particular colour of car?  It just didn’t make sense, and I spent so long mulling the fact it didn’t make sense that the play was over before I’d quite tuned back in.

The large cast delivers some genuinely strong performances but also, I’m afraid, some rather weak ones, and there are a few basic mistakes on display (particularly in delivering lengthy chunks of dialogue while facing the back of the stage).  Slightly oddly, characters from one age sometimes appear as extras in another – with the particularly weird effect that a 1950’s waitress expresses horror at the arrival of a black customer, despite the fact that another black man has been sitting at a corner table all along.

The biggest problem, though, is simply that the script doesn’t quite justify its concept.  I was expecting the three storylines to come together in a clever parallel conclusion, but in fact there are mere echoes of connections between the ages, telling me little I hadn’t realised before.  But still, that set, that set!  I’ll have dreams about that set.  Let’s hope this play can ultimately match its grand ambition.

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