REVIEW: Tribe, London Theatre Workshop ✭✭✭

Last Updated on 1st July 2017

Tribe atLondon Theatre Workshop
The cast of Tribe. Photo: Cameron Slater Photography

London Theatre Workshop
28th June 2017
3 Stars
Book Tickets

If you were ever wondering what it would be like to get sucked into an Eng Lit vortex teaming with a maelstrom mix of ‘Lord of the Flies’, ‘Peter Pan’, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, and ‘Star Wars’, then you need wonder no longer. Cut along to this bijou little fringe theatre up two flights of stairs in the City to find out.

There, a ‘tribe’ of modern, up-to-date, one might almost say ‘born again’ Scouts go off on an adventure weekend, equipped with tents, woggles, whistles, billy cans and maps. Very sophisticatedly, they draw their inspiration from books: on the one hand, Baden-Powell’s ‘Scouting for Boys’ – a kind of Quran for the paramilitary organization he founded – with memorised passages being quoted and repeated throughout the show with positively Talmudic devotion; on the other hand, we get an ‘own choice’ of ‘wider reading’, and the shaky choice in question here is an even older tome, Mark Twain’s much vilified picaresque tale of ante-bellum white trash and a runaway slave on the Mississippi, a work simply soaked in the ‘N’ word and really far, far beyond today’s pale, especially where the politically correct sensitivities of young people are concerned. The Scouts Association has already repeatedly distanced itself from this play, which it stresses, over and over again, is a mere work of ‘fiction’, which has nothing to do with what scouting is or what the scouts are about, and does not in any way carry any endorsement or approval from the organization. So, with its market appeal hull thus holed beneath the water-line, the vessel of this play sets sail upon the unpredictable waters of the fringe, making its first call at Leadenhall Market.

Tribe at London Theatre Workshop
The cast of Tribe. Photo: Cameron Slater Photography

In fairness, we have to remember that it is the work of not one, not two, but of three separate sets of hands. Now, there are some successful playwriting pairs (from Middleton and Rowley to Morrie Ryskind and George S Kaufman), but how many trios do you know? And how many plays have you maybe heard of which, with three or more authors, have got themselves into trouble? Exactly. Therefore, with several health warnings attached, nervously, we proceed to an investigation of the work itself.

Tribe at London Theatre Workshop
The cast of Tribe. Photo: Cameron Slater

Its greatest assets are the cast and the stage action. David Fenne’s psychopathic ‘Jack Merridrew’-like Snr Patrol Leader, Colin, is a wonderful driving force in the descent into brutality that gives the drama its main point of interest; Georgia Maskery as the Voice of Good Sense, Julie, one of two girl scouts introducing the complication of gender competition and sexual tension into the ostensibly harmless situation, plays Beatrice to Colin’s Benedict for a while in an engaging way; Ross Virgo vacillates fairly convincingly as the hapless good-guy driven to the bad, Charlie; and Nick Pearce as Henry and Aaron Phinehas Peters as Simon add energy into their scenes with alternatively sensitive vulnerability and an African heritage making the references to Twain’s slave Jim all the more telling; while Shalana Serafina does a good job of tracking her Amira’s growth from painful shyness into bold decisiveness; and these six youngsters all together often create stage magic with their energetic commitment to imaginatively staged group scenes. Two more assets remain: Robert J Clayton’s poised Baden-Powell and wobbly old-school Skip, Scott, and Marcus Churchill’s New Man-ly Assistant Scout Leader, Finn. All are dressed entirely appropriately by Carrie-Ann Stein. They have huge fun rushing about the stage, much in the manner of a student show.

With a staging interestingly designed by Jonny Rust and Justin Williams, there is plenty to look at, especially when lit so well by Daniel Sheehan (pace the occasional glitch), and enveloped in Jack Barton’s apt sound design. However, it is just possible that in spite of his abundant inventiveness director and co-writer Matthew McCray is just a little too much enmeshed in the creation of the story to see where potential weaknesses may lie: there is such even-handedness in treating all the storylines equally that we don’t know where quite the centre of the narrative lies, nor what quite kind of a journey it is taking us on.

Be that as it may, there is a lot to enjoy here and much to admire in a basically young ensemble putting on a slightly unusual sort of show, fleshed out with some engaging humour and pathos.

Untl 8 July 2017


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