REVIEW: THE FRONTLINE
By Shaun Hutchinson
Friday, July 18, 2008.
Life on the street doesn’t stop when the rain falls; this performance of Ché Walker’s play, The Frontline, performed in the open air, in torrential rain, under the night sky at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre wasn’t deterred either. Neither was the near capacity audience.
Resplendent in waterproof capes or soaked to the skin at ground level, or seated in the covered parts of this atmospheric and historic auditorium. In fact, the typically English weather - almost an additional member in a 24 strong cast - added realism, an authenticity, to the two hours plus show, which is, after all, set on the street outside London's Camden Town seedy Tube station.
The playwright, Ché - named after the Argentine Marxist revolutionary - knows a thing or two about one of London's most vibrant boroughs. He was born and raised in Camden. He discovered Camden Lock as a teenager in the 1980s and he used to sit up on the bridge by the canal, smoke a spliff and watch it all parade past: punks, rastas, rockabillies, soul boys, skinheads, drag queens, goths, all tribes, all hues, all ages. Camden, Che said, taught him to be curious about people.
"I have worked as a youth worker and a drama teacher in the borough for almost 20 years now. Young people have never been more at risk. It always makes me laugh when people from outside the borough talk about ‘trendy Camden’ – look at the drug arrest rates, the street-crime arrest rates, the high youth unemployment. Don’t be fooled just because Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse swing by for a pint now and then."
There’s no plot as such to this play. Not in a traditional sense anyway. Rather several stories compete for the audience‘s attention. And they grab that interest with rap, gospel and soul songs, and live ska music with realistic dialogue that captures the diversity and linguistic ingenuity of London’s multi-national communities.
In two 70-minute scenes there are several themes - amongst them, loyalty, redemption, and temptation - told through inter-connected dramas.
The increasingly hysterical pleadings of a failed theatre impresario and his relationship with a crackhead dread; a book loving club bouncer’s [Mo Sesay] flirtatious sparring with a lap dancer [Jo Martin]; and her daughter Babydoll’s [Naana Agyei-Ampadu] sexual precocity; a dispute between gay lovers; the relapse of a born again Christian; the rivalries between Ethiopian and Somalian drug dealers and their clash with English drug kingpin Cockburn [an intimidating Robert Gwilym] and two love affairs – one tragic, the other hopeful.
So there’s a lot to see; and watching the events unfold on The Globe’s large, unforgiving stage in a set designed by Paul Wills, is like a stroll through Camden Market. Imagine listening in on simultaneous snatches of conversation and wondering which one to eavesdrop on.
You might not see communal singing and dancing, or gospel renditions on London’s streets [then again maybe you might!] but you’re sure to see a few verbal confrontations and fistfights. And Georgina Lamb’s choreography perfectly balances pantomime violence and ballet style elegance.
Ché Walker has an accurate and careful ear for multi-cultural and multi-national London’s evolving language – influenced by Caribbean, African, Asian and Middle Eastern migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers. Walker - who also acts and teaches drama - brings together a mass of characters whose overlapping dialogue creates a mash-up of competing voices.
The writer of 1998’s acclaimed Been So Long, and 2003’s award-winning Flesh Wound has likened this writing method to a piece of music where the bass line, in this case overheard conversation, provides the backdrop for other dialogue which acts as melody which catches your attention.
The technique, to continue Walker’s logic, recalls the polyrhythmic Afrobeat trademark of Fela Kuti. Listen carefully and you’ll hear different rhythms and alternating melodies merge throughout the performance. But they all synthesise precisely to make perfect sense.
Directed by Matthew Dunster, this very physical play uses every inch of The Globe’s generously sized stage, together with a T-shaped extension that brings performers deep into the audience.
The cast bring great zest and personality to a play that swings between preachy old-fashioned agit-prop and warm, well-observed humour, and between hip street-cred and a haunting sense of present-day London sitting on top of many rich layers that complicate the picture of our cultural heritage. The first half ends with a rap chorus tendentiously proclaiming that "The war on drugs is juss a war on blacks/ Is juss a big fat lie/ Like the war in Iraq".