BWW Review: THE GIFT OF THE GAB, White Bear Theatre
We're in Brighton, the dodgy seaside town of dirty weekends and Pinky's bookies, during the Winter of Discontent. The workers revolting and the food in Rizzilli's greasy spoon is fairly revolting too, though, at 40p for an omelette, cheap enough.
Around a formica table sit three blokes, Arthur Daleyish conmen, who ostensibly sell alarm systems (utilising the gift of the gab) but really case joints for housebreakers and then take a cut when the ill-gotten goods are fenced out. When a rare book is spotted in a old soldier's Hove house, the trio's loose partnership comes under pressure - will it survive?
Simon Davis Eden's comedy gets such a lot right that it's a shame that it gets such a lot wrong too - a brilliant, even necessary, play forever tantalisingly out of reach, buried under structural issues and a narrative that runs out of steam.
Sim E Sigh's set is beautifully observed, every detail redolent of the grim closing of the 70s, from ceramic salt cellars to a quite majestic new-fangled microwave oven (£349). That everyone wasn't smoking non-stop, is the only variation from how it was - and it was good to hear the awful casual racism of the time given full value, a reminder that the Overton Window, even in these post-referendum days, is mercifully narrower than it once was.
Devon Opp's costumes reek of polyester and overflow with the garish colours and designs that we thought nothing of back then and they're worn by a cast perfectly suited to the their roles.
Ross Boatman (whom I remember from many hours watching Late Night Poker on Channel Four) has plenty of cockney menace, Charlie Allen, the chancer's innate confidence and Michael Roberts, the old boy's slow boiled bitterness at how the world is changing. A shout too for Ivanhoe Norona, whose extraordinary face invests his caff owner with inbuilt comic potential and Madalina Bellariu, whose bee stung lips give Concetta exactly the kind of Italian allure that can be tough - maybe impossible - to resist. She, with her gammy leg, also gets the best line in the play, albeit slightly thrown away.
The first half includes plenty of decent knockabout stuff (reminiscent of Minder and Only Fools and Horses) and we're soon committed to these small-time tricksters, the Neapolitan father and daughter team in the caff and pair of likely lads on the make. We go to the interval wondering what will happen next.
The answer is to be pitched into a blizzard of fades to black, intrusive set changes that seem to last longer than the scenes themselves and three storylines of varying implausibility resolved rather too predictably. Not for the first time recently, I'm left wondering if writers have forgotten the art of finishing a narrative.
It's a shame, because the focus on working class lives at the margin of a society in turmoil, has obvious parallels with the world some 40 years on. There's some real laughs too, even if the Cliff Richard gag was pushed too far and God knows theatre needs those in the long months between pantos.
Go for the set, the costumes and some nicely judged performances, but be prepared for a fractured closing hour that manages to be both too full of plot and drag a little to its conclusions. Very nearly very good.
And I never want to hear that incidental music ever again!
Photo Andreas Lambis.