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Look Behind You by Daniel Wain at the Tabard Theatre

Dick Whittington gets the Noises Off treatment in Daniel Wain’s terrific comedy Look Behind You. A confluence of comedy, satire and sadness, Look Behind You lifts the lid on the Panto season and in doing so lays bear the grim realities of the theatrical life. This play could only be written by someone with a lifetime’s experience of theatre who simultaneously dedicates his life to it but feels trapped by its impossible demands. In that sense, Look Behind You is a bittersweet love letter to the theatre. Like Noises Off it works by contrasting the Panto Dick Whittington with the backstage crises and disasters. But unlike Noises Off, Look Behind You has a deeper metaphoricity. It’s about the death of the Britannia Theatre as standing for the end of a certain definition of England. It’s a comedy with a very profound message. On both levels, pure entertainment and clarion call, it works exceptionally well. I thoroughly enjoyed it and can recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone with an interest in the performing arts.

Look Behind You - Cait Hart Dyke, Mia Skytte - Photo Marc Brenner.
Look Behind You – Cait Hart Dyke, Mia Skytte – Photo Marc Brenner.

The send-up of the panto season is done with panache, parodic pazaz, and persistent outrageous punning. The innuendo, double entendre and sex jokes are nonstop, highly creative and often very funny. Despite the danger of falling into Benny Hill or Carry On territory, Daniel Wain’s writing is self-aware and sufficiently reflexive to avoid the descent into cliche. Indeed it is precisely his creative play with cliches that does so much to make Look Behind You so entertaining, engrossing and engaging. The effect is like a very good episode of Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. His cultural range is mightily impressive. He can take down everything from Soap stars to philosophers. Just one example of the latter. To say ‘I think therefore I am’ is like putting the Des Cart before the horse. The play is rich in literally dozens of such parodic puns and word plays. But it’s not just a verbal play. The visual delights are considerable. The costumes, makeup and props add an additional layer of humour and hilarity. The farcical entrances and exits of the panto are another source of tension and just-in-time escapades.

So far so pantomimic. Look Behind You weaponises the panto to reveal the grim realities of life in the theatre. We see with a gimlet eye the other side of the glitz and the glitter. The jealousy, bickering, rivalry, backstabbing, bills, bills, bills and the sheer improbability of the whole venture. Nobody in their right mind would enter such a profession. The Motive and The Cue captures the relationship between two strong characters, multiply that by five and you get a sense of the enormous complexity of the dynamics going on both on and off stage in Look Behind You. It’s so rich it would need several viewings to fully appreciate all the multiple story arcs on display. I was struck by Annabel Miller’s poignant portrayal of the martinet stage manager Maggie Dunn. A no-nonsense disciplinarian who with withering put-downs keeps the actors in line and in time. She looks after everyone in the company but who looks after her? No one is the answer. It’s a profoundly insightful and moving portrayal of one overlooked and underappreciated non-glamorous team member.

Look Behind You goes further than Noises Off in that it has a political agenda. It is a metaphor for Britain in crisis. The ramshackle theatre – The Britannia – and the pub next door where the cast spend most of their time The Albion are obvious signposts. Like Archie Rice in The Entertainer, Daniel Wain’s Sam Nancarrow is a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown as well as at the end of his tether. He fights a battle against all the odds to keep the Britannia going. He has the most wonderful soliloquy in which he expresses his love for the theatre and why he sacrifices so much to keep it alive. It is profound and it is very pertinent. If there is one cause in the breakdown of our social capital I would put my finger on it would be the collapse of our civic institutions. The church, the Sunday schools, the boys’ brigade, the brownies, the cubs, the scouts, the sea cadets, the CCF, the cricket clubs, the brass bands, choirs and the Am Dram companies. We are very close to losing traditions that took centuries to build. We are replacing them with nurturing via algorithms. This is the heart of the matter and Look Behind You is a brilliant encapsulation of it. Go see. They smile when they are low.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Five-star favourites Strut & Fret return to the Tabard with a freshly minted, marvellously modern revival of their sell-out hit Look Behind You. Welcome to the cross-dressing, thigh-slapping, wise-cracking world of pantomime, where monkeys talk, dreams come true and people are hit but never hurt.

Now look behind the scenes… at the bad-mouthing, two-timing, pill-popping pressure cooker that is backstage reality. The perfect bitter-sweet antidote to the seasonal slush!

Christmas. New Year. A time for peace, goodwill and happy-ever-after? Oh, no, it isn’t! Not for the mixed bag of mixed-up has-beens, wannabes and never-will-bes trapped in the last-chance theatre of a godforsaken seaside town, performing Dick Whittington, somewhere far, far away from the paved gold of old London Town…

Look Behind You by Daniel Wain
17th January – 3rd February 2024

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  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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