I have a reasonably wide knowledge of the hostelries that abound in London, including, more specifically, around Euston. I’ve experienced bare-board floors, squishy ‘Spoons carpets, retro-lino and even an attempt to return to the spit ’n’ sawdust of the ‘fifties. (There’s actually a pub called the “Spit and Sawdust” in Bermondsey). But I’ve never come across a pub the floor of which is covered in sand. And I’m not talking surface sprinkling here: no, in this show the floor of the Cock Tavern in Euston is ankle-deep in builder’s Sharp and up around the bar it rises to knee-deep. It makes the acting experience quite interesting I would think particularly when central character Eleanor Hickock (Ashleigh Cole) has beautiful designer shoes that get covered in the stuff – I bet daily-shoe-cleaning didn’t feature in the character spec.
So I’m sitting there thinking, wondering, whiling away the seemingly interminable minutes as the actors have long-winded and inconsequential debates on stage about Churchill, Livingstone and Tony Blair, why it’s there and then it hits me. My addled brain suddenly clunks into gear and I realise the sand represents The Desert. Specifically the desert in Iraq. Yes, dear theatre-goers: it’s a metaphor! A clunking great cliché-metaphor to let us poor non-intellectual, unworldly saps know that the play is set in the deserts of war-torn Iraq.
Though it’s not actually set there – except, perhaps in the minds of some characters – and the play is not actually about Iraq at all: it’s about arguments about Iraq – you know those well-worn, tried and tested, fully raced and rallied theories – on both sides – of why The War was good, bad, necessary or just plain ugly.
In Act 2, set in a neat and tidy home in Chippenham, there is no chintzy carpet: no, you’ve guessed it, the sand remains. I suppose disposing of a couple of hundredweight of desert in the interval would be too much to contemplate. So we clunk on through military cliché after military cliché as we learn about how dead (good) son went off to war inspired by Hickock’s writing and now haunts Mum and Dad, with the inevitable live (bad) son turning up to pour petrol on the smouldering bonfire. Hickock has travelled down to Chippenham to meet them. Clunk. We discover, inevitably, that not only is she an argumentative bitch but she’s an arrogant, self-obsessed, pig-headed inflexible bitch to boot. Clunk.
Cole is very good in this role and lifts the turgid script whenever she is on stage. But, quite honestly, she’s not given much to work with other than “I supported the war and continue to do so” – without any real insight into the complex motivations that send people to fight other than the usual trite WMD’s, murderous dictator and stability of the region arguments. Having developed the character well in the first half there’s nowhere really to go with it in Act 2.
The show is written, directed and produced by Harry Darell – and the problems start right there: as producer Darell advertised the run-time as 2 hours including interval – i.e. a 9.30pm finish: it finished at 9.55. Director Darell should have warned producer Darell about this. Although “overrunning” was given as an excuse the show didn’t start late, the interval was timely – it’s just a very long – far too long – play. Director Darell ought to have been alerting writer Darell to this and some judicious cutting – I say some – a lot of judicious cutting should have been agreed. That is the problem – not always but often – with writers directing their own shows: they tend to want to hang on to every line, every phrase, every word as indispensable to the play. They rarely are, in my experience, and getting someone else to direct your work, in collaboration, is a much better way to hone a pice to a manageable length with incisive themes. In Edinburgh, of course, if you overrun your allotted time-slot the venue will cut you off at whatever stage the show is. That’s a hard lesson to learn but a hard lesson worth learning. The show is massively over-written: an outside view and voice can help a writer with that.
Alongside Cole, Lucia France as Abigail Taunton is another notable performer but it’s a nothing part to which she brings real freshness and vitality. Greg Snowden as semi-drunk, semi-naked pub-owner Nelson has some impact at first but his aggressive-aggressive shtick becomes wearing after a while. Paula Cassina as dead soldier’s Mum Maria is impossible to hear most of the time despite being in the studio-size Bridewell – perhaps she should take a leaf out of France’s and Cole’s book on projection. Matt Weyland is excellent as Piers Bradley, grief-stricken father of his dead soldier son and Ella May is infused with extravert chirping as Liz, a working-class Irish lass, cleaner at the pub, who, despite May’s cheery portrayal, is a completely superfluous character without whom the play would be shorter and the themes would be unaffected.
Altogether we have a cast of ten which is generous for a fringe show with no doubling. That’s a big cost – £3,500 per week just for the actors – so it would be interesting to know how it is financed. I suppose Producer Darell has the answer to that with writer Darell being eternally grateful for such patronage whilst director Darell was undoubtedly rubbing his hands with glee when hearing about the cast of ten: “For a Fringe show? I’ll have some of that!”
My advice? Pare down the cast – conflating some characters. Dispose of much of the set-piece “debate” in Act 1 – to my mind, both Churchill and Ken Livingstone are irrelevant to the plot. And take the sand back to Wickes and
get a refund: hopefully, they won’t find the odd shoe in amongst it. Less clunk, more enthralment is the way to go.
Review by Peter Yates
For Eleanor, conversations are a battleground and words are tools for manipulation. Her disputatious stance on the 2003 invasion persuades one reader, Mark, to enlist. When Mark’s mother seeks out the journalist who convinced her son to die for his country, sparks fly and violent confrontations ensue. Eleanor is faced with a family who mourn the loss of a son and a brother and is asked to answer for it.
Georgie Farmer – Mark Bradley
Greg Snowden – Nelson Walsh
Paula Cassina – Maria Bradley
Ella May – Liz
Ashleigh Cole – Eleanor Hickock
Arthur Velarde – Miles Finlay
Henry Eaton-Mercer – Arthur Wilson
Lucia France – Abigail Taunton
Matt Weyland – Piers Bradley
Harry Farmer – Billy Bradley
For the Sake of Argument
Written and directed by: Harry Darell
Presented by: Admission Productions
Bride Lane Fleet Street, London, EC4Y 8EQ
Date/Time: Weekdays 28 Jan – Feb 7 @ 7.30pm. Sat 1 and 8 Feb and Sunday 2 2020