Ted Whitehead Blisters (Bush Theatre) Out of Our Heads (Royal Court) If you steer clear of the West End there's a lot of interesting theatre around, much of it originated in unconventional ways: by a writer working with a company (Joint Stock), for example, or by writers working together with almost Jacobean empathy (Brenton and Hare), or by improvisation techniques as in Blisters at the Bush Theatre. The new playwright jumps off the pedestal with the same glee as the new woman.
Blisters is devised and directed by Sarah Pia Anderson and Sheila Kelley; it's their fourth collaboratiOn and is a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. Essentially it's about the relationship between a mother and daughter. The mother, Emmy, had fled pregnant from her puritan father in the Shetlands to bring up her child in the anonymity of Bradford. The daughter, Ivory, is now about twenty and is obsessed with amateur ballroom dancing. We see the mother proudly displaying a ballroom dress to Uncle Harry and to Simon, the dancing partner: it's an astonishing creation in pink net, with 'fourteen layers till you reach the taffeta underslip, which goes next to the leg.' and it has taken the mother three months to make it. Ivory appears, .and her only emo
tion is shame that her mother is slopping around toothless in a beret, pinafore and ankle socks.
The second act takes us to a Butlin's holiday camp, where Ivory and Simon corn-. pete in the All England Amateur Ballroom Dancing, and later give a demonstration of the Tango Victoria, watched by Emmy and Uncle Harry. Ivory is wearing the pink dress, a red wig, and satin shoes; Emmy has smartened herself up and is wearing her dentures by special request. But the dentures are hurting badly, and she goes off to the lavatory to ease them; at which point Ivory explodes. 'I have to put up with her every day of my life ! Everything is so beautiful here ... everyone looks so beautiful. But they all know she's my mam. She makes me feel ashamed.' It is a savage moment as the mother returns and hears the end of this honest outburst.
The play • conveys perfectly the sense of dull, cramped lives and tawdry aspirations. The blisters are on the souls as well as on the feet. You feel the density and the reality of the experience but at the same time you have to put up with the sheer tediousness of much of it. I found myself getting impatient with the prolonged exposition of the first act; and then feeling cheated by the concentrated drama of the second. No doubt that is how things happen in life, but we don't go to the theatre to see life. • Still, it's something to be left wanting to know more about the characters of a play, and in its unemphatic way the piece is often moving and funny. David Ellison is excellent as the gentle, chain-smoking uncle, furtively stubbing out his cigarettes in the coal bucket by the fireside. Polly Hemingway and Stephen Bill make a convincing dance partnership, and perform the Tango Victoria with hilarious arrogance. And there's an especially brave performance by Sandra Voe as the mother, shuffling around in her anklesocks, eyes darting nervously from one character to the other, with unpredictable flashes of spirit—as when she insists that her daughter's name is 'Ivory,' after the father Ivor, and not 'Ivy' as the daughter likes to be called. As always, I was impressed by the flexibility of design at the Bush, Gemma Jackson's sets taking us effortlessly from the cluttered room in Bradford with the tin bath in front of the fire, to the polished floor plus sequins and Edmundo Ros of the dance hall.
At the Royal Court, John McGrath's Out of Our Heads was produced by the 7.84 Company, which exists, according to the programme, `to present the realities of working-class life and history directly to working class audiences.' (In Sloane Square?) The play starts from the premise that capitalism alienates the worker from his/her labour, neighbour and ultimately self, and drives the worker to a particularly violent and antisocial form of drunkenness, in contrast with other types of socio-economic systems in which ritual intoxication can enrich social relationships,
McGrath illustrates this thesis by showing
us something of theSl Pi fee settyalteo ro2f3HAarp rriyl 10397i 171 Riddoch), a Glaswegian brewery worker who enjoys his drink, endures his job and regularly batters his wife; Davey (James Grant) a shop-steward suffering from noble disillusion with his class ; Harry's moronic wife, June (Elizabeth MacLennan); and her friend, Janice (Terry Neason) who teaches her how to be 'normal' by plastering herself with make-up and playing her ordained sexual role.
sympathise with McGrath's attack on alcoholic apathy. In fact some years ago I started a play called, 'How Many Pints call a Man Drink?' It was based on TolstoY's story, 'How Much Land does a Man Needr because it seemed to me that the addiction of the scouse proletariat to drink was as self" destructive as that of the Russian bolo' geoisie to land. But I abandoned the writing because I soon realised that the thesis was dated : a minority of the working class might be addicted to drink, but the majoritY were already becoming addicted to far more dangerous drugs, such as gardening, television and monogamy. (I suspect that if the workers were not in the pub they would be at home watching Kojak.) • And is it true that you don't get point "cal arguments in the pub? The liveliest and most drunken evening I have had in years was with three working-class Scott Nationalists. Drink may put the workers on, Socialism: it certainly doesn't put them ond Nationalism. (I suppose McGrath wo°1 say that confirms his point.) ,s One final quibble: l welcome the attack on machismo (and feminism° to' that matter) but the roots of this vice go 5° deep that it flourishes around the world i° all sorts of socio-economic systems. But despite the simplicity of the argument' the play is an ugly and honest attack. The technique is beautifully fluid, ernP10Yirli dramatic episodes punctuated by direct au; dress to the audience, songs and music, and pantomime flashback, and makes for a stimulating—and cheerful—evening. This study of the curse of the work106 classes is followed at the Court by Tiler Curse of the Starving Classes, who maY may not be the same people. It's an Arne can play by Sam Shepard. Future plans anr; nounced by the new artistic director, Stua e Burge, include a Shakespeare and thre_ Jacobean plays. I can only hope that ther. revivals will not be at the expense •of t!re younger British playwrights, whom tgd Court is supposed to be encouraging, ag who are really the new Jacobeans.