Peter Hamilton Dyer
Danny Lee Wynter
Rain did fall. Oh boy, did it ever. It sheeted and poured and puddled, the clouds weeping. Hardly ideal conditions for a night at the Globe, with half the audience exposed to the elements, but not totally unfitting for Che Walker’s chaotic yet endearing urban hymn to the underbelly of the city.
The Globe has staged new plays before, with each season usually including two new works, but these have always been period pieces, historical in context. The Frontline is the first play with an explicitly contemporary setting to be staged in the space and Walker has opted to make it as modern as possible. So the play is set in 2008, in a still-smouldering Camden, outside the gaping dark mouth of the underground. It’s 2am and the streets are filled with London’s invisible people: hot dog vendors, rent boys, drug dealers, book-reading bouncers trying to learn the words with which to think bigger thoughts and a desperate actor plugging his one-man show about Walter Sickert.
This slice of modern London fits surprisingly well into the space. The Globe’s back wall has been painted black and daubed with Banksy-esque graffiti, the distinctive pillars have been sheathed in black plastic. Walker’s play is a big sprawling thing, with numerous characters and interlocking stories, some little more than snippets, others more substantial. The various narrative threads criss-cross constantly and the dialogue overlaps in a manner reminiscent of a Robert Altman film.
Matthew Dunster’s production revels in urban grime and ghosts. The piece is well-paced and well-served by some appropriately rough-around-the-edges musical accompaniment. Sometimes there is a wish that Walker would zoom in a little tighter on some of his characters, on the volatile relationship between Jo Martin’s Violet, the strip-club owner, and Marcus (Mo Sesay), her bouncer, or on the poignant story of Ragdale, the middle aged man shuffling around clutching a photo album and announcing to each woman he comes across that they are his long lost daughter returned to him. Other stories fade from view too quickly, like that of Golda Rosheuvel’s Beth, the former addict and born again Christian, so prominent in the first half, yet all but absent after the interval. The play works best when viewed as a series of swift, little sketches, a collage, rather than a cohesive whole.
The large cast, unfazed by the rain, do an amazing job, though audibility is sometimes an issue, especially with the sky rebelling in so dramatic a fashion. While many of the performers have no problem filling the space, some sections of dialogue get muffled, lost, and it is not always clear what is going on. The play has an excitable quality with Walker trying to cram in so many references and ideas that again coherence is sometimes sacrificed, there is a rap about the legalisation of drugs, a predictable but welcome anti-Boris jibe and a long monologue about the comparative merits of Marmite and Western democracy. Here again the play cries out for a bit of judicious pruning to allow room for some of these areas to blossom and develop.
But while Walker’s play is a messy thing, it has energy in abundance and it had a quality that seemed to chime with the audience, who remained on-side and involved, whooping and cheering with regularity, despite the vile weather. This is because, despite its occasional misfires, The Frontline exudes a sense of humanity, an embracive quality, and is unashamed in its celebration of the fact that London is and has ever been fed and enriched by every new wave of people who choose to make their home in this grubby but glorious metropolis.