An Appreciation of GARRY by Sophie Treadwell

GARRY by Sophie Treadwell at The White Bear Theatre until June 22nd

First off, I must say that in my opinion this is not a great play, however the issues it puts centre stage are fascinating and make the play worth exploring.

The story of young people in trouble was a popular post-war theme picked up in movies like Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948) and Anthony Mann’s Side Street (1949). However, what makes Sophie Treadwell’s 1954 (previously unproduced) play GARRY so extraordinary is that she is dealing explicitly with multiple taboos- homosexuality, prostitution, sexual violence – in a time when these themes were completely unacceptable stage material unless deeply coded and/or so hopelessly vague as to be unreadable.

So in reality Treadwell was writing a play that had zero chance of being performed in any theatre, apart possibly from club theatres – which again had their own restrictions.

American playwright and journalist Treadwell’s only hit was 1928’s much-revived MACHINAL, seen in London as recently as last year at the Almeida, the play inspired by the real-life case of convicted and executed murderer Ruth Snyder, about a woman weighed down by society’s expectations which ultimately drive her to murder.

26 years after MACHINAL Treadwell wrote GARRY, which is set in New York; Garry is a “punk” – a young, bored reform school kid who gets his “kicks” from stealing. On parole and trying to reform for his new wife, he gets fired from his job and reverts to type, picking up a businessman in a bar and choking him to death during sex in his hotel room, stealing his wallet in the process.

His young, trusting wife Wilma takes upon herself the unrealistic task of “saving” Garry from himself, from being a weak person like her father was, and in doing so torturing herself trying to “love him enough” to un-see the failings and lies he instinctively resorts to. “You gotta love me, Wil, It’ll make a man of me” he says in desperation, asking the impossible.

Everything he gravitates to is “dirty” to Wilma – sex with men, violence, stolen money. Garry recognises this, but as it connects directly to his ambivalence about his homosexuality he knows that these are a part of him. All sex becomes dirty, as in explaining why they have not yet consummated their marriage, Garry tells Wilma “I wanted to keep you clean”. There is little tenderness in their single, eventual lovemaking, mostly aggression and submission.

Garry goes on the run and leaves Wilma to do her own kind of sentence – just waiting for news, powerless. Meanwhile a reporter comes sniffing around for information and proves sympathetic (a rather unlikely quality for a NY newshound, perhaps here Treadwell projects herself a little too heavily onto the character) to the point where he seems a viable new partner for Wilma.

Garry returns briefly, to see Wilma, having run away from his new sugar daddy in Mexico, and eventually returns there, realising that Wilma has nothing to offer him, and vice-versa.

The direction (by Graham Watts) and the performances get what they can out of the material. Thomas Martin is suitably conflicted as Garry, Phebe Alys as Wilma provokes sympathy in her journey from fragile, hopeful new wife to discarded “beard”, and Claire Bowman provides a welcome shot of sass as Garry’s prostitute sister, shedding her principles faster than her clothing for the right price.

This is dark, edgy stuff but as presented it doesn’t look it – the lighting should have more of its own character, be more noir-ish, but everything here is flat and somewhat two-dimensional which again dilutes any atmosphere the actors try to create, which is a disappointment. The set is very straightforward with little sense of time or place, only the sound helping with 50s music and radio broadcasts.

Treadwell clearly has an understanding of – and compassion for – these characters and the troubled ways in which they interact, but there is very little action within the play, which makes it feel more like a series of dialogues creating character studies, clunky in its assembly and dramatically not that satisfying. To me, it felt like more of a draft than a finished play.

However, the issues raised – the complex homosexual connections with street crime and reformatory, in a time when men were not “allowed” to be gay and live normally in society, when most men simply suppressed their true selves – as to make a life outside the norm would have been too restricting- and further, required the independence of considerable wealth which was way beyond regular people.

Despite the show being called GARRY, this is Wilma’s show. The real revelation here is the impact upon the woman. Homosexual men who suppressed their true selves often married to attempt to “keep themselves in check” or simply hide away. In truth, of course, it was a non-solution that made victims of both partners.

Gay men’s anguish in this time has been dramatized occasionally; but what has been more rarely covered (and partly why this play is valuable) is the impact upon their wives, most likely not ever being allowed to fully understand that what has happened was not in some way their fault, and that actions to try to sort it out would prove limited at best, futile at worst. The damage caused to both parties by society’s strictures are indeed shocking and tragic, and Treadwell should be applauded for taking a bold and raw look at the impact on one woman. Thanks also to director/producer Graham Watts for giving us the chance to see this play after a 65 year wait.


GARRY plays at the White Bear Theatre until June 22. Information and tickets here


Review: THE SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING

IN BRIEF Troupe’s visceral Victorian celebration of fledgling feminism finding its fists, staged in the perfect venue.

Returning after last year’s triumphant sell-out season at Southwark Playhouse, Troupe’s pulsating production of Joy Wilkinson’s meaty slab of a play has found the perfect home in Wilton’s Music Hall – built in the mid-nineteenth century, which is when the play is set. A perfect time capsule, entering its doors into the magical auditorium is the nearest we could experience to stepping back into the time that they play is set, and is worth the price of admission alone.

The play focuses on four pioneering women trying to improve their lives through being the first ladies in the UK to box in public. All four have aspirations for a better life, and although initially drawn by the money, they come to see boxing as a kind of liberation – as Violet says, “I want to show them what women can do”.

Violet is a nurse/assistant brought in to the fight venue to attended to the wounded – she fights to scrape money together to train as one of the first female doctors. Matilda is a low-paid mother who has to provide for her family- she fights as an alternative to selling sex. Polly is an orphan fighting to stay alive- she is a natural scrapper; and Anna is a middle-class mother with a violent and unfaithful husband who fights to learn to defend herself.

They all encounter the Professor- a gamey fight promoter who teaches them “the art of the show”, choreographing their matches and making money from their work; just another kind of pimp.

With fighting comes a new kind of strength, which uncontrolled has the potential to become a lethal weapon. “It’s time to let the fear out” says Anna. All are searching for a freedom to live their lives as they want, unfettered by men.

The play is set in a time of change, as the first shoots of female liberation push unyielding through the hard ground of male domination. “Got to keep the little ladies in check” as the Professor remarks, justifying the shocking depths to which men would go to subjugate women and the self-serving beliefs of the day- which are starkly illuminated in the play as the barbaric acts they are. These scenes produce a genuine horror and revulsion in the audience. Make no mistake, this is strong stuff and Wilkinson does not flinch from showing us the grisly toolkit of male domination- from mental to physical violence, from condescension to actual mutilation (in the guise of science).

Joy Wilkinson’s clear, canny and humane script works admirably on all fronts, with the discussion about whether women should be working alone or together to achieve their aims brought brilliantly into focus at the climax of the play.

The production is hugely successful in creating the genuine excitement of the fight, expertly choreographed and played by the actors. Max Perryment’s rich sound design amplifies the moments when the fists hit their mark, causing a genuine reaction through the audience. Likewise, the music gravitates from melodic to jagged and mechanistic as the play proceeds, underlined with the sound of the baying fight crowds at every fight which whips up a real atmosphere (for me, it could have even been even a little louder).

The set is creative- simple and effective, complimented by just a hint of dry ice to conjure up smoky Victorian London, and the side lighting (in a heavy lighting rig for this difficult space) works very effectively to create depth and mood.

The women of the cast are just terrific – particularly Fiona Skinner and Jessica Regan reprising their performances from last year as Polly and Matilda respectively, absolutely inhabiting their characters with assurance to make the most of them. Celeste Dodwell makes a determined Violet glow with life, and Emma McDonald rightly buttoned-up as Anna. Kirsty Patrick Ward directs with an unflinching eye, with care for the characters, and special mention for the Fight Director Kate Waters (from original movement sequences by Alison de Burgh) who makes the fights look right.

Of the rest of the cast, Ashley Cook (Troupe’s founder) is enjoyably multifaceted as Dr Bell, and Jane How plays Violet’s Aunt with precision.

The male roles are all (rightly) secondary to the four fighters. My only reservation was that Owen Brenman as the Professor seemed underpowered and underplayed at the performance I attended. Sadly, his portrayal lacked any kind of “edge” which would allow him to be both the fairground barker and the wily manipulator, with the mystery of an outsider. However, as I said, it’s the women’s show.

The nature of the entertainment that this venue was built for- music hall songs set against a backdrop, meant that no wings or stage depth were needed, which makes it problematic for plays which set up here. However, Troupe use the existing stage, but have also built out in front a lower platform to play upon, thus giving themselves a two-tier playing area which wisely brings the show closer to the audience. The front platform is used more often, and for all of the boxing matches which occur through the play.

The cast project well in this high space which gives an echoey acoustic. Such a different space from last year’s small, cramped and intimate Little 90-seat studio at the Southwark Playhouse where the actors practically acted in the audience’s lap. It is good to see that the company have taken full advantage of Wilton’s stage space to open the playing areas out.

Razors, fists, violence, murder, sex, freedom. This is life in the raw at a pivotal time in Britain. Joy Wilkinson has brilliantly shone a celebratory spotlight upon four strong and inspiring women fighting for their lives. The audience rightly ate it up and shouted for more. This is one you must not miss.

THE SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING is at Wilton’s Music Hall until June 29th. Information and tickets here


Review: OPERATION MINCEMEAT

IN BRIEF Fast and funny musical burlesque of wartime deception from an impressively synchronised ensemble has potential to be a cult hit.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT is a polished burlesque on an outlandish but true World War Two mission designed to outwit German forces which succeeded. Appearing first as a book and then a film, this is the first time that it has received a musical comedy treatment and -surprisingly- it works beautifully, thanks to the creative effort invested in all departments by the SpitLip company’s creator/ performers.

During World War Two the British are constantly seeking novel ways to outwit the enemy. A minor player, Cholmondeley, comes up with a daring plan which is pushed by Montagu, lending the front that Cholmondeley lacks. The idea- to create a fake identity by dressing an anonymous corpse as a Marine officer whose body will wash up on Spanish shores carrying fake papers about a planned Allied invasion of Sardinia, to distract attention -and troops- from the real point of entry, Sicily. Putting the plan into action involves much crazy fun along the way, from forgetful morticians (“must have a head, must be a man”) to creating the corpse’s backstory, to suspicions about who can be trusted.

Playing at a satisfyingly fast clip, the show has the chutzpah to get away with its smart, intricate lyrics and catchy tunes (the one-upmanship of the early “God That’s Brilliant” sets the tone) while having the sense to vary the pace and tone with solo pieces which take a more reflective feel. Songs like Cholmondeley’s “Dead In The Water”, “Stand Up Cholmondeley”, and especially Hester’s moving love letter song (a lovely, simple, extended conversational ballad sung exquisitely by Jak Malone) all vary the tone and, in creating sympathy of character in the midst of the cartoonish fun, make us realise that this show has more to offer than just a simple burlesque.

SpitLip have set the bar very high, and have invested huge effort into this show which pays off. Singing, movement, diction are all precise and accomplished. Choreography/movement is similarly lively and again well-drilled. Physical comedy is particularly well-spotted, and split second timing is extended to lighting too as we rapidly switch between scenes in a submarine and a nightclub, via a smart lighting set by Sherry Coenen.

As the character whose development we see most of, Cholmondeley, David Cumming is possessed of that magnetism you can’t make, channelling the comic best of Jerry Lewis both in look and physicality, which draws your eye to his tiny pieces of business and movement throughout the show. Unlike Lewis, he knows just when to rein it in. He also has a strong and attractive singing voice which is rightly given a number of outings.

All of the cast of five assume a wide variety of supporting roles, working effectively as an ensemble, making split-second changes look easy both with words and actions. The four SpitLip founders who have written and composed this show work as a unit both in making and playing the show, as well as, I assume, directing it jointly (there is no director credit). I do think it might have been interesting to have seen what an outside director might have brought to the show, however that is just an out-loud thought.

The excellent band of three are led by MD/joint composer Felix Hagan, part of the team who have fleshed out the story with a very entertaining mix of songs and styles. Hagan’s virtuosity on the keyboards adds greatly to the overall impact of the score. The intricate and clever lyrics demand attention, in the rapid-fire songs almost challenging the audience to keep up, creating something of a euphoric feeling when these fast-paced songs conclude.

All of the numbers may not immediately stick in the mind (easily remedied by a trip to SoundCloud – a live recording of the whole show next please!), but the energy of the performances does, and the audience leaves on a high, having had a great night out.

OPERATION MINCEMEAT’s broad appeal and enthusiastic reception in the New Diorama’s intimate theatre space suggests that it has the potential to become one of those rare theatrical cult hits. It deserves to have a future life, including touring and a return to London. At this high level of execution, it’s a direct hit of fun.

Review: WIFE

IN BRIEF Four part time-travelling play explores the prices paid for marriage by those termed “wives” in an earnest but uneven script, well-acted and directed.

WIFE is four one-act plays linked by related, conflicted characters, spanning 90 years of time- 1959, 1988, 2019 and 2049. It’s a very uneven, sprawling but earnest show which aspires to look at the state of marriage across the years, through interactions with Ibsen’s A DOLL’S HOUSE, using the play and theatre as reference points along the way. Anyone who does not know Ibsen’s play will still find this show accessible.

In 1959, teacher Daisy loves actor Suzannah but is married to accountant Robert, who sexually assaults her. The resulting (unwanted) child -Ivar- in 1988 pressures Eric, a young carer (for the previously mentioned Daisy) to come out too quickly and in doing so causes their relationship to split. In 2019, Eric’s daughter Clare tracks down the previously mentioned Ivar to ask about her father who has been killed. Ivar is now married to Cas, a self-obsessed performance artist wasting Ivar’s money on vanity projects. In 2049, Clare’s daughter Daisy is in love with the theatre and actor Suzannah, who tries to help her unravel the mystery of the tambourine, a family heirloom, and inscriptions therein. Cyclically, and quite satisfyingly, we return to 1959 to the first meeting between Daisy and Suzannah, where all the possibilities began.

Samuel Adamson has produced an intense play, with only a few laughs amongst the angst, but it held the audience from start to finish. Adamson’s thrust seems to be that the state of marriage has never provided equality and liberty; in the first part it is seen as a traditional trap for women, the second is as an unfocused aspiration to “have what heterosexuals have”, the third is lazy and an anachronistic accessory, and the fourth seems unnecessary. The play says much more about homosexual relationships than heterosexual ones and as such is a more useful debater about how society’s outsiders seem to have become politically neutered by being brought inside the law. However, this is all rather academic and somewhat dry. The section in the future was less compelling to me and perhaps only there to frame the circularity device, it did not interest me as much as the other parts.

Indhu Rubasingham skilfully directs with a humanity and care for the characters, while also providing us with a very funny and much welcome first act curtain which completely drags us into the present. A cast of six do a good job with the material they are given.

As a wider exploration of marriage the play is lacking, but as an examination of same-sex relationships and how they relate to the social and legal strictures of the day it fares better. From Daisy’s 1959 “arranged marriage” to Ivar’s 1988 struggle for self-expression, to Ivar’s 2019 realisation that the grass isn’t always greener (“We got what we wanted… and we lost”) to young Daisy’s open relationship of 2049, it’s an interesting discussion. For me, the play works best when in the present, highlighting self-obsession and expression which appear to have engendered complacency amongst those who have not had to fight for the rights they have been gifted with. As a discussion, this show has many loose ends and unexplored avenues which made it rather frustrating for this viewer.

The “wife” term will mean different things to different people in different times. As it is used here, it’s first as a prisoner, then a camp joke, then a self-conscious archaism, then- who knows?  Rather than accepting society’s definitions, how much better to first know, and be ourselves – to find our own truth, not a label.

I hope that WIFE finds its audience.

WIFE runs at the Kiln Theatre, Kilburn, until 6 July. Information and tickets here


Review: THIS ISLAND’S MINE

THIS ISLAND’S MINE at Kings Head Theatre until June 8th, details here

IN BRIEF Ambitious production of epic multi-strand drama whose breadth restricts its depth, but maximised by hard-working cast and direction.

First things first – it’s refreshing to see a play about gay people that includes both men and women. And how interesting that to find this mix we have to thank this play from 1988, now receiving a loving revival (its first ever) from Ardent Theatre and director/designer Philip Wilson.

There is a lot packed into its 105 mins running time (straight through). Teenage Luke runs away from his family to stay with his gay uncle Martin; a lesbian couple have trouble with their young son and jealousy; an actor and chef experience turbulence in their relationship. All face pressure of prejudice upon them involving sexuality/ race/ sex. Meanwhile, Martin’s old landlady reflects on her life and the prejudice she has seen, while caring for her elderly cat.

The play follows them all episodically as their stories intertwine and create a fast-paced narrative that uncovers many unexpected links. There is a lot within its pages- humour, tenderness, longing, sadness, awakenings, which contribute to a well-told story threaded through with humanity.

However, the play’s inclusivity in terms of characters and storylines comes at the cost of depth. This limits the audience’s connections with the characters, which is a pity as when the writing slows down and gives itself room to breathe, it is a delight to listen to Osment’s lyrical language, and as such these moments catch you by surprise and cause a reassessment of the play.

A lot of Osment’s script involves the characters breaking the fourth wall, explaining the narrative, locations, feelings and situations. This moving in and out of character, combined with the fact that the actors double -or mostly triple -up on roles played, mean that the play can feel very fragmented. This can create distance for an audience, however I must say that the audience I was with were concentrating from start to finish, which is a tribute to director Wilson’s carefully thought out approach and the energy of the cast.

What marks out this production is the clarity with which the director has presented the many strands of story in what could otherwise have felt like a very tangled text. The production is also ambitious technically, with an attractive, simple yet flexible set design which works well within the many confines of the Kings Head Theatre.  Rachel E Cleary’s sophisticated lighting design works stylishly, and the evocative soundscape by Dinah Mullen brings a welcome texture to the variety of environments created.

Pleasingly cyclic, the play ends as it starts, with teenage Luke on his home ground, just a little older, a bit wiser and a little more hopeful. THIS ISLAND’S MINE is an endearing tapestry of outsider stories, effectively woven by director Wilson and enacted by a tight ensemble cast that work hard (ditto the props and costume teams) to bring the multitude of characters to distinctive life. And as a reminder of how things have changed- or haven’t- this is a valuable wake-up call that we still have to fight those old battles every day.


THIS ISLAND’S MINE runs at the Kings’s Head Theatre, London, until June 8th. Details and tickets here