Friday, 13 July 2012

Non-review: Playwright's Playwrights - Abide With Me

In the series' third week it's Roy Williams' turn to choose his "playwright's playwright," and he opts for Barrie Keeffe, whose work he says showed him that theatre was the right medium for him to tell stories of working-class people. Williams directs a rehearsed reading of Abide With Me, the middle play of Keeffe's 1977 Barbarians trilogy. The turnout this afternoon at the Duke of York's was better than for the first play, but unsurprisingly not on a par with last week's invasion of Cumberfans. Of course, for the sort of people who booked these readings long before the casts were announced, today's lineup of Daniel Kaluuya and Sam Swann is starry enough anyway. (The third cast member, Morgan Watkins, I don't think I've seen on stage before, although his face seems familiar from TV - I'm pretty sure he was in the most recent series of Silk.)

A one-acter in contrast to the full-length plays we've seen so far in the season, Abide With Me follows three Manchester United fans and takes place outside Wembley Stadium during the 1976 cup final, which Man U played (and lost) against Southampton. Three London-based fans who work together in a paint factory and who've followed their team around the country, are now standing outside the stadium in the hope that Jan's (Swann) uncle will get them the tickets they were promised; when that falls through they desperately pin their hopes on finding a tout; until finally resigning themselves to listening on a broken transistor radio, to the game going on only the other side of the wall. Only having seen one Roy Williams play (Sucker Punch, which Kaluuya also starred in) before, I can't comment too much about how much of an influence on his work I could spot, but certainly the dynamics of the characters feel very familiar - the oldest member of the trio, Paul (Watkins) having converted at least Louis (Kaluuya) and possibly Jan as well to Man U from other teams, and his rather threatening hold on the two sidekicks being tinged with desperation, with needing them to follow in his self-destructive footsteps.

Keeffe's often very funny script gets us on-side with these characters, the references to the violence which they often take part in and Paul is actively looking forward to, made chillingly offhand. With Jan and Louis largely there because of peer pressure, we're left with Paul's feeling of powerlessness motivating his actions. Unlike the last two readings where the actors had to hold their scripts, Williams has got hold of stands for his actors' playtexts, meaning they can get into a lot more physical performance, gesturing and standing up to deliver the titular hymn/football chant. With the intimate setting, Kaluuya and Swann manage to convey through glances their apprehension of Watkins' character, setting up the trio's power relationship. Again, given that the cast and director only got put together yesterday, it's impressive how the three manage to put across the nuances of how this power structure starts to crumble, and how tenuous Paul's sole area of control is when Louis starts to think for himself, possibly taking Jan with him. In picking a subtly political piece that says a lot in few words, Williams has perhaps made the best choice so far of plays suited to this kind of reading. (Even the simple fact of picking such a short play is a canny decision as it actually means he might have had the chance to do some directing - the length of the last two means that just a couple of read-throughs would have eaten up all their rehearsal time.)

Abide With Me by Barrie Keeffe was part of Playwright's Playwrights, which is booking on Fridays until the 20th of July at the Duke of York's Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour straight through.


  1. The reference document that is my blog suggests Watkins was in Saved at the Lyric and Mother Courage at the National.
    I had a ticket for this but circumstances conspired against me

    1. Ah, Saved, no wonder I blocked him from my memory #scarredforlife