Violence on stage can look phoney; so can promenade performances in derelict buildings. Luckily, neither is the case in this terrifying revival of Barrie Keeffe's play about three young men going off the rails in 1970s London. Thanks to three amazingly authentic performances from Thomas Coombes, Jake Davies and Josh Williams, Tooting Arts Club have delivered one of the standout productions of the year.
Although this show was first staged in Tooting three years ago, it's now in the desolate surroundings of the former St Martin's art college on Charing Cross Road. The audience climbs three flights of stairs to find themselves transported back into the bleak atmosphere of an unhappy decade marked by social and political failure. There are scrawled slogans on the walls, broken seats and a haunting feeling of decay and desolation. The temporary bar offers Babycham and pickled eggs.
Coombes, an actor I have never seen before, delivers an astonishing performance as shaven-headed Paul, the bullying leader of a gang of three unemployed school leavers from Lewisham. While his subordinates Jan and Louis want to better themselves and show traces of vulnerability, Paul is always a thug. However much violence he displays in this thoroughly physical production, one senses there is ten times as much bubbling up inside him. Coombes' ability to capture a young man whose only way of expressing himself is through aggression is quite extraordinary. I was scared.
Keeffe's play is composed of three acts. In the first, we see the three lads swaggering around not long after they have left school, wearing that odd 1970s uniform of narrow braces, rolled-up blue jeans and Doc Marten boots and earning a few pounds spotting cars for thieves. Mixed-race Louis has trained as a refrigeration engineer, while Jan dithers over whether to take a job with the 'bints' in the local factory. The second part -- which seems to go on too long -- shows the three lads as violent football hooligans, trying and failing to get into Wembley to watch their team Manchester United.
In the last part, the trio meet again a few years later. Jan, now in the army, has been promised a night out with 'black bints' at the Notting Hill Carnival by Paul, but when they encounter Louis the evening ends not with sex but with bone-crushing racist violence.
The 1970s is a decade I never really experienced, having spent almost all of it outside the UK. Very few of the audience at the performance I saw would have been more than children in the period when it was set, and some would not have been born at all. But this play is no period piece. As a study of warped masculinity and lack of identity, it is bang up to date.
The play is directed with great intelligence by Bill Buckhurst, whose theatre skills are mostly on show at Shakespeare's Globe, where he has directed many youth and touring productions. I'm just waiting to see what he, Rachel Edwards the producer and designer Simon Kenny come up with next.