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Review of Garry by Sophie Treadwell at the White Bear Theatre

Garry by Sophie Treadwell - Ali Wright Theatre Photography
Garry by Sophie Treadwell – Ali Wright Theatre Photography

Thank you, Graham Watts, for reminding us how powerful a strong story and actors who won’t give up can be, even upstairs in a Zone 2 pub! This is how you do it: assemble disciplined, committed and charismatic players at the start of their (promising!) careers and give them every reason to tell a story like their lives depended on it. And guess what happens? Our lives actually do depend on it!

Sophie Treadwell’s importance to the American 20th-century drama cannon cannot be overstated and yet she has been marginalised for too long for a series of obvious reasons. Rather than look to subvert our current expectations with new tales, there is something profoundly subversive in the simple act of taking searing dramatic talent that was shelved for gendered reasons and just performing it. But to do so assumes an almost sacred duty. Thankfully Phebe Alys, Claire Bowman, Thomas Martin and Matthew Wellard were up to this solemn and substantial task.

This 1954 play opens with a sort of proto-Bechtel test. Oklahoma-born Wilma (Phebe Alys), wife to eponymous Garry (the fast-talking New Yorker, played by Thomas Martin, whose traumatic past and current criminality haunt the play) and Garry’s ambivalent sex-worker sister, Peggy (Claire Bowman) talk at length about the yet-to-appear Garry. And yet, they aren’t really talking about Garry but, rather, use code to talk about themselves. The discussion is not about this absent man so much as an attempt by Peggy and Wilma to justify their actions amongst their paucity of economic and social options; never explicitly questioning their roles in an entirely co-dependent existence. The contrast and symmetry between Peggy and Wilma is central to establishing the dramatic boundaries of the work and Alys and Bowman rise fully to the occasion.

And then Garry appears. Thomas Martin as Garry has a quiet and coiled energy in his T-shirt and jeans that feels every bit as ominously sexy and doomed as Marlon Brando’s arrival as Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film of A Streetcar Named Desire… except appropriately tuned to being three metres away rather than to the scale of a major proscenium house or a Hollywood soundstage. He is not sympathetic nor appealing but we absolutely understand why Wilma has hitched her wagon to him, with her loneliness and under-confidence already established. In the first encounters between Garry and Wilma, Alys gives us pathos without any saccharin pseudo-uplift nor does she show us a victim. She credibly shows us the confinement of Wilma’s social, economic and psychological reality of mid-century America that, sadly, doesn’t feel especially dated today.

In the same year that Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949) are making major West End revivals, it is fitting to add a much more nuanced woman’s perspective to exploring the other side of the ‘American Dream’. Whilst Sally Field’s depiction of Kate Keller in Jeremy Herrin’s production at the Old Vic was masterful, the material with which she works gave her little opportunity to exist beyond the device of the tragic victim of American aspiration and greed gone wrong; Miller’s 1946 work is fundamentally a story of discovery between the Keller men of which she is an indicator of impact. In Treadwell’s Garry, the play may be named after a man who experiences a dramatic shift but the audience identifies, and takes the journey, with Wilma. The suffocating nature of her existence – a direct commentary on the social framework of the era as much as the literal asphyxiation meted out by her husband – is a vital contribution to dramatising mid-century America and the false dream that continues to haunt contemporary discourse. All the characters are trapped for lack of funds as much as for identity. The first act ends with the lament, ‘money lets you move’ and we feel as trapped as they are for it.

Matthew Wellard as newspaperman and Wilma’s would-be suitor, Dave Andrews, arrives a potent force in this four-hander. He strives to convince Wilma that he can see a spectrum of humanity beyond the ‘madonna/whore’ duality she’s internalised and offers a taut performance within the confinement all characters must obey.

Treadwell’s work is important, topical and an excellent complement to the questions about the failures of the capitalist dream with which we are still reckoning some three-quarters of a century later since her, Williams and Miller’s premieres. Aspects of the writing might veer towards melodrama but fundamentally her work is scorching. Watts’ staging aptly locates the story in a time and place without too much fanfare or distraction and delivers with the right reverence to the script. He deftly makes good use of the intimacy pub theatre affords rather than trying to hack around it. The costumes, lighting, set and sound design all sympathetically serve the story and characterisation. As pub theatre, a dialect coach is almost certainly out-of-budget but the three different regional accents required were passable, if a little approximate. Should this production get the transfer it deserves, a few hours of coaching would address any inconsistencies.

I would like to see this production find another, bigger opportunity to continue to provoke the timely questions it poses, especially amongst revivals of other mid-century American giants whilst offering a women-written view to the mix. Perhaps Watts’ GARRY could showcase for a few nights as Elliot and Cromwell’s Death of a Salesman transfers to the Piccidilly Theatre this autumn?

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

1954. New York. An unemployed man is lured from a bar to the hotel room of a “prominent citizen” with the promise of a job. A sexual assault is attempted which has devasting consequences for newlyweds Wilma and Garry. When a reporter turns up looking for a scoop, events build to a shattering conclusion.

Treadwell unashamedly tackles themes of prostitution, homosexuality, sadomasochistic sex, and the role of women in the 1950’s. Her punchy dialogue retains the power to shock and she was a pioneer in creating strong and dominant female characters. Even today it’s difficult to imagine Garry being allowed a performance in certain parts of America.

Garry
by Sophie Treadwell
Director Graham Watts

19th – 30th June 2018
WHITE BEAR THEATRE
138 Kennington Park Rd,
SE11 4DJ
https://www.whitebeartheatre.co.uk/

Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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