Tinderbox @ Bush Theatre, London

cast list
Sheridan Smith
Jamie Foreman
Brian Dick
Nigel Betts
Sartaj Gartwell

directed by
Josie Rourke
Lucy Kirkwoods first full length play is a dystopian comedy set in a sun-ravaged future England where Dorset is crumbling into the sea like sherbet and Scotland is separated from the main land by Hadrians Channel.

Having recently swam that very channel, fugitive artist Perchik takes refuge in a Bradford butchers shop run by the sadistic Saul, a middle aged patriot who talks with pride of his meat-based empire, though actual product is thin on the ground. He lives there with his pretty young wife, a former porn star with a knack for picking pockets, now rather downtrodden. She, meanwhile, dreams of one day escaping the meat business and retiring to a little cottage by the sea.

Instead of turning the passport-less Perchik over to the authorities – who are liable to do nasty things to his kneecaps – Saul allows him to stay on as an assistant in his shop. But this might not be the stroke of good fortune it initially seems, especially considering that a number of Sauls previous assistants have met with messy ends involving cement mixers and ended up providing fresh meat for his butchers counter.

Kirkwoods writing has considerable comic flair and some of the details of her future England where cigarettes are now class A drugs but The Archers still plays on the radio raise real laughs. She has successfully created a unique, murky world, where the planet has turned against its inhabitants and the streets are one constant riot. However the whole play seems rather unfocused and lacking in direction and, at nearly two and half hours, including an interval, it is begging for a serious trim. As it is, despite the plays length, it is hard to discern what Kirkwoods points are on nationalism and Englishness. Though characters are despatched with cricket bats and suspended from butchers hooks with some frequency, Josie Rourkes production could actually stand to be more excessive, more absurd, in order to alleviate the flatness that eventually sets in.

What it ended up reminding me of most was a (very stretched out) episode of The League of Gentlemen, both in tone and content, mixed with a large helping of Joe Orton. Among the cast, Sheridan Smith is superbly perky as Sauls deceptively daft wife Vanessa and Jamie Foreman manages to be both repellent and, at times, oddly sympathetic as the domineering butcher. Its refreshing to see a piece of new work so determined to go its own way (though the influences are apparent) but Kirkwood needs to work on tightening her writing. Shave an hour off this and it could have been a gleefully dark thing, hectic and energetic, messy in the best way, instead the plays initial sense of invention dwindles long before the end.

The Bush Theatres old L-shaped layout has been replaced with a small series of raked benches and a rectangular stage complete with red curtains and a little shiny chandelier hanging from the ceiling. A West End theatre in miniature. Its an unexpected touch but somehow in keeping with the feel of the production. However this new seating arrangement does no favours for the sightlines of those on the back rows. Like the play itself its a nice idea that could have benefited from a bit more thought and care.

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