photos ©Robert Eke
The Shoe Factory Social Club is the name given to a bit of semi derelict industrial space on St Mary’s Plain in Norwich that amongst other things was once the home of a business known as Hymns Ancient and Modern.
Pending conversion into bijou apartments for the richer investor this becomes the perfect setting for a punchy play that amongst other themes addresses the once popular response to housing shortages of squatting. The play is the 1973 ‘Magnificence’ by Howard Brenton, once notorious for upsetting the moral right with the exuberant ‘Romans in Britain’.
The original production at the Royal Court Theatre featured some impressive actors, including Pete Postlethwaite as Cliff and Kenneth Cranham as Jed. The play has two separate plotlines which converge in the climax. The first sees five young left wing revolutionaries set up a squat in an empty London property, and then details the tensions that emerge between the five disparate characters as the squat group struggle with the reality of their self imposed confinement in a sordid building. The second plot is a rather bizarre and touching duologue between a current and former Conservative MP, who also happen to be an unlikely pair of queens who refer to each other as ‘Babs’ and ‘Alice’. The older Tory has been relegated to college life, but is dying, and he wants one last day of mischief, reminiscence and bitching frivolity with his younger and potentially more successful friend. The depiction may seem a touch stereotypical to modern tastes, but in 1973 would have been pushing boundaries.
The two disparate sub plots converge in the final act in what can be best described as a gentle representation of a bit of bungled terrorism.
The sometimes languid pace of the first act is initially worrying, until you think about how life would actually be if with four friends you occupied a building while awaiting the inevitable violent outcome. Crude Apache do a fine job of establishing the distinctive characters of the six inside, and those gathering strength outside.
In the squat Will (Greg Lindsay-Smith) soon clashes with rather posher Veronica (Joanna Swan). They are uneasily watched by couple Jed and the pregnant Mary (Jo Hipperson) and Veronica’s partner Cliff (Colin Barrett) and the ghostly presence in the squat of a longer standing elderly occupant with little to say (Patricia Fernandez Dominguez). Jed attacks a policeman sent to help in the eviction, and faces a spell in prison while the others move on in their lives.
The second act starts in a completely different atmosphere, with the two Tories taking a punt down the Cam sharing a bottle or two, but tragedy soon looms over their rather edgy friendship, with Babs (exquisitely performed by Russell J Turner) breaking his own terrible news to his friend, while at the same time struggling with his envious hatred of his friend’s success. Alice (Andy Bennett) returns to the later and final scene in an explosive encounter with the previously imprisoned and bitter squatter Jed (Ben Dixon).We even get a brief appearance of Lenin (Tom O’Sullivan).
Jed, Mary and Lenin
The choice of this play was made before the recent events which it appears to reference, including the election and the recent terrorist attacks, but it is primarily a comedy of human frailty and interaction with many genuinely funny moments. For me, Crude Apache regulars Russell J Turner and Greg Lindsay-Smith both give delightfully poignant performances exploring the full reach of Brenton’s writing for these two voices, but they depend for their impact on the contrast with less flamboyant but equally expressive characters, with Andy Bennett achieving the virtually impossible goal of making us feel some sympathy for a Tory MP. Ben Dixon builds a simmering anger as the archetypal angry young man Jed driven to the need to vent his fury.
Director Tom Francis has created performance that adds a new depth to this revived play, giving both historical insight and contemporary relevance. I have never been disappointed by Crude Apache and this show builds as ever on their reputation for edgy performance and strong characters with production values that greatly exceed what we might expect from a volunteer collective. Norwich is lucky to have such talent amongst us, so after you have popped down to the polling station consider your next solemn duty to be sitting back in the Shoe Factory and enjoying this show. Else I will be knocking on your door soon…
Listing: Wednesday 7th – Saturday 10th June 2017, 7.30pm, The Shoe Factory Social Club, St. Mary’s Plain, Norwich, NR33AF
Special thanks to Bert for letting me use his photos.