Thursday 13th April 2017
The enduring fascinating of the Kray twins receives another outing in this extraordinarily accomplished and exciting play by Bryan Hodgson. Blessed with two compelling performances from newcomer Jimmy Barker and more established face Perry Meadowcroft as The Brothers Kray, this is a gripping, uninterrupted 90 minutes in the company of the infamous pair, seen as they're psyching themselves up to receive film producer Frank Taylor for tea in the drawing room of a rented mansion they are pretending is their home, hoping he will want to immortalise them in a movie. The endless to-ing and fro-ing between them, as they prevaricate, hesitate, bluster and argue in advance of the awaited arrival of their important guest is heavily reminiscent of the strong drama of Pinter or even the absurdism of Beckett (who both belong to the era of the Kray's ascendancy).
Hodgson directs his own script in a beautifully confident production by the splendidly combined forces of BH Stageworks (Hodgson's own outfit), Paul Nicholas Dyke (in his first venture as producer of a play), and Jamie Chapman Dixon (who is making a welcome return to the theatre after pursuing other interests). Hodgson himself is revisiting material he first broached in a co-devised musical drama built around the tragic life of Frances Shea, Reggie's doomed wife (in which he took – with memorable results – the role of Reggie). Since then, he has launched his independent writing career with the capably written ‘The Fellowship', which featured the pub chats of two great intelligences, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S Lewis: somehow, he managed to make interesting stuff out of the conversation of two Oxford dons about re-writing Anglo-Saxon myths (the play will be revived later this spring by the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford). With the reading of another script, ‘Dorothy', also under his belt, he here presses ahead here with work that is closer, I think, to his driving passions.
Hodgson could hardly have wishes for a better pair of actors to create his surprisingly fresh and dynamic revival of this modern urban legend. Meadowcroft, as Reggie, has been around for a little while and as well as playing bass in the indie band ‘ROSKO' (listen out for their debut single, ‘The Boys') he has appeared in such well received and successful productions as the Union Theatre's stunning revival of ‘Bad Girls' and London Theatre Workshop's runaway success of ‘Judy', with which he is about to go into the West End's Arts Theatre. He is one of a field of 12 who were workshopped for the parts, and is here paired alongside someone he didn't actually work with in the selection process, but with whom he finds arresting stage chemistry: Jimmy Barker, who comes to theatre via a rather different route. Having studied drama at university, and played leads on the Edinburgh Fringe, Barker avoided theatre for the best part of a decade, working instead in rock bank management. The wait was clearly worth it, because he returns with one of the best new roles we've seen in a while, a remarkably complex and subtle representation of Ronnie.
The play presents them as two halves of a life-time conversation that seems to go round and round without end. Scalding pots of tea, brought to the coffee-table in dark brown earthenware that is hopelessly at odds with their ostensibly grand surroundings, come and go in similarly cyclical fashion. Reggie wants to make a good impression with the film producer, but he has his hands full in trying to keep Ronnie on an even keel, dosing him with pills when his mood runs away into the hysterical and dishevelled. But Ronnie is on another road: his interest in the film has drawn him to writing a scene of dialogue, and out it comes for perusal and discussion with Reggie, who tolerates his brother's unbecoming foray into artistic self-expression with patronising condescension. The scene is rather good, and – encouraged by overcoming a hostile critic – Ronnie produces another. And another. And still more. And, finally, we get a massive pile of scenes, detailing in worryingly honest fashion the ins and outs of their meteoric careers from East End backstreet tearaways into national criminal overlords.
The script doesn't shy away from any aspect of their brutal and devastating trajectory through British society in the post-war era, and Hodgson balances the different elements of their tale with remarkable fluency and panache. Perhaps, about two-thirds of the way through, a little focus slips here and there. But that doesn't detract too much from our concentration upon the exploration of two highly unusual personalities and their dangerously violent lives.
Evidently unimpressed by the successful transition into the arts made by such underworld figures as George Raft (whose film roles have long since outlived his gangster notoriety), Reggie is very unhappy about any suggestion that they might actually appear in their movie themselves. There is some discussion of the appropriateness of casting choices: various names of the time are bandied about, to much comic effect (one or two of them still with us, and in the public eye, reminding us of the proximity of these figures). Yet, Ronnie's relish for exploring his own script pushes them to take on roles themselves, and Ronnie himself is adept at becoming first their mother, Violet, and then Reggie's late spouse, Frances. Hodgson is always sure-footed in these exchanges, and knows instinctively how to create action and forward propulsion in dialogue; he is much more a master of that here than in his earlier scripts and the rate at which he is developing as a writer – and director – is an exciting prospect.
As for the rest of the production, Jamie Attle dresses the pair convincingly – with help from Martin Ramsdin's wig supervision, and keeps the set looking as handsome as his slender budget will allow. Joe Price lights the play with subtle changes of intensity and a super closing flourish. The omnimath Dyke also takes the photographs exquisitely, as well as designing the poster and programme. This is another terrific feather in the cap of the enterprising Theatre N16 and not to be missed.
Photos: Paul Nicholas Dyke @pndphotography