|Manchester theatre reviews|
Adapted for the stage and directed by Matthew Dunster, from the novel by Alan Sillitoe.
Reviewed by Jane Turner March 2012
“I’m me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that’s what I’m not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me” so says Arthur Seaton, Alan Sillitoe’s hard-talking, hard-drinking and womanizing “angry young man”.
Sillitoe’s first-published and best-selling novel, written in 1958, has been adapted for the stage and brought back to ass-kicking life at one of my favourite venues, the remarkable Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, and by the award-winning Director Matthew Dunster, whose previous work includes Mogadishu and 1984 (both reviewed here on The Manchester Salon). With a high-profile cast that includes actors from Coronation Street, This is England and Downton Abbey, the lead role of Arthur Seaton is filled by Perry Fitzpatrick and the setting, as depicted so vividly by Sillitoe in the novel, remains true to 1950’s working class Nottingham.
It’s good to see such a great piece of writing re-visited, and the timing? Well might it have something to do with the outbreaks of violence on some UK streets last summer? In a pre-performance interview Dunster has said that there is a group of people who feel angry and excluded as Seaton did. But if this story has been resurrected because anger is back in fashion, I think it’s important to make the distinction between anger from solid communities directing their rage purposefully at the state and its authorities far from their own doorsteps, and the random acts of mindless violence and destruction we saw last Summer. Seaton was angry, but he was no fool.
The novel, a story of masculinity, non-conformity and a sense of belonging was adapted into a film as part of the so-called kitchen-sink movement and starred a young Albert Finney as Seaton. Although it is a long time since I’ve seen that old black and white movie, Finney remains fixed in my psyche as Seaton - a role I thought he embodied, despite his dodgy accent. Vowing not to make comparisons (as I failed not to do last week when reviewing Streetcar and was unable, or unwilling, to forget about Brando), I was partly un-successful again. Note to brain – try not to be such a stick-in-the mud!
Fitzpatrick makes for a very different Seaton, and although he gave a resolute and energetic performance on stage from curtain up to encore, constantly dressing (rather snappily) and un-dressing whilst narrating long extracts from the original novel, he had the unfortunate appearance of a war-time spiv (I half expected him to roll up his sleeve and try to sell me a watch). He was also a bit too tall and fresh of complexion for an undernourished hard-knock ‘50’s boy like Seaton, and to coin the local lingo, was far too “bonny” and over-pre-occupied with his greased-back quiff. As a Nottingham boy himself, he should have been more at home with the dialect than I am. But “aye up” there was “summat up wee im” in that department too.
While it’s always refreshing to bring something new to any adaptation, without detracting from the essence of the original, I thought the treatment of Seaton was not how Sillitoe created him - or is that how I interpreted him? Adapting this from a 21st century perspective, where all of our behaviour has been constrained, controlled and categorized, it is difficult not to be swayed by such influences, and in this version we see Seaton portrayed as having “a bit of a problem”. In actual fact he was simply showing anger and guts – something often well hidden these days, as people fear falling foul of one of the many behavioural codes policed by the PC brigade. Sillitoe’s anti-hero, a young man who puts two fingers up to politicians, authority figures and the system, has become Dunster’s rogue, and there is a world of difference.
The present day obsession with the so-called “problem of consumerism” degraded another aspect of the original story. Seaton didn’t just work hard at his lathe to flash his money around at the weekend, buy nice suits and sweets for his nephews and nieces, but in order to prove a point. He wanted to beat the piece-work system, show that he could transcend the monotony and that he was as good if not better than anyone else, rather than being interested in money for its own sake. But what’s wrong with Seaton spending what he earned on a good quality suit anyway? Coming from a family who had experienced long spells of unemployment and poverty, the desire to buy new and better things should surely be seen as a positive and motivational one. I think that Dunster may have been influenced by the frugalocracy and crafted Seaton as a consumerist with all its negative 21st century connotations, rather missing the essence of his character, time and place.
With period pieces I have come to expect to be transported back to the appropriate times by clever set design, smoke machines and atmospheric lighting, but there was no grime, smoke, noise or black-and-white ugliness of an old industrial town like Nottingham so I felt a little let down, as I do like a bit of ambience. What we got instead was a mechanised clothes rail full of Seaton’s flashy suits that doubled up as a bicycle factory production line, and whilst slick and imaginative as it whizzed on and off set, didn’t quite cut it for me - but you might have guessed by now that I am hard to please.
There was much to praise in this enjoyable production though, particularly in the highly talented performances of the versatile cast who stepped onto the circular stage with pocketed hands, a smirk and a swagger. They managed to thoroughly encapsulate in dress, mannerisms, attitude and looks the cockiness and buoyancy of the '50's working-class, and who with countless changes of wigs and wardrobe, transformed themselves into a myriad of different characters - most actors playing several parts.
I read Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in anticipation of this production (highly recommended). It was like retreating into the comforting arms of childhood, a reminder of everything that was good about growing up in an old working class community. On every page I turned, were reminders of somewhere, something or someone long since gone. I was like being back in a gaudy-wallpaper covered room full of friends, neighbours and not-forgotten family members. It also brought to mind a time and a place just out of reach, yet still warm and familiar, that every once in a while I wish I could go back to, just for a carefree moment.
I didn’t feel the same when watching this production though. Dunster’s selective use of Sillitoe’s script, means there is insufficient material with which to engage and not enough time to get to know the characters that Sillitoe portrays so warmly and wittily in the novel. Reading the novel you notice that Seaton has a lot more depth than Dunster gives him credit for. There are many family scenes that provide insight into Seaton’s character to make you realise that he is not just a flashy loud-mouthed man with a big thirst. He shows paternal interest in Brenda’s children, is warm and protective of his own family, gets into a lot of good-natured banter with the older men he meets at the bar, and has other interests apart from drinking such as fishing and cycling. But on stage he is portrayed in a rather one-dimensional light as are most of the other characters, who come across as largely un-likeable with few redeeming features; I sensed the audience were not rooting for any of them. A more accurate account would be that of Richard Bradford, in his introduction to the 14th edition of the novel; “It is about people who are just as enigmatic and often more formidable than their counterparts in the middle-class mainstream”.
There were families just like the Seatons on the estate where I grew up, and some of the domestic scenes that Sillitoe portrays could have been enacted in the sitting rooms or glimpsed through the back doors of my own early happy-go-lucky days skipping freely around the streets and in and out of other people’s lives, absorbing memories along the way. I also lived in a neighbourhood where families were large by todays 1.9 standard or as Sillitoe shrewdly puts it, where there were so many kids that “whenever you go in by the back door you squash a couple of ‘em against the wall”.
I only wish this production had included scenes that gave the audience a little more of the novel's detail, so telling of the time and place, and depicting working class people with vitality, energy, defiance and warmth. The cover of my copy of this novel has a quote from The Guardian that describes it as “plugging into some basic source of working class spirit”; well I had forgotten just how often I had been there to witness it and now miss that spirit, just how great an attribute and how worthy of record it is, and Sillitoe finds it everywhere – but where is it now? Possibly eroded by years of political betrayal and welfare dependency?
I’m in danger of sinking into the depths of reminiscence here and still only on page nine of the novel and enjoying soaking up the smoke-filled atmosphere of the pub where Seaton had just sunk eleven pints of beer, seven small gins and they are “all playing hide-and-seek inside his stomach”. Pubs like those are hard to find now, the modern day versions being over-sanitised and over-regulated versions of what were once vibrant hubs of characterful life, a place where “you followed the motto of be drunk and be happy”, and where Saturday night was the “best and blingiest night of the week… a violent preamble to a prostrate Sabbath”.
There are several pub scenes in the play including the opening set which shows Seaton winning a drinking competition and being thrown from the pub in a drunken stupor. Dunsters pub scenes were lively, noisy and atmospheric, with Seaton usually either drunk or chatting up women. Another opportunity missed to include scenes of beer and banter from the novel that would have given the audience a different perspective on Seaton and his quick-witted personality. It was great to be reminded though of a vibrant working-class culture, patronisingly berated as inferior to the supposedly more refined and arty culture of the middle-classes with more time and money at their disposal, unlike Seaton who only has time to think “when on the lavatory”. When free from work or when money permitted, they participated in a thriving pub society where what is commonly derided as binge-drinking today was once just the antidote required after a “week's monotonous graft”, and well-earned too - so why not? Apart from the cost and the snob-quotient, what really is different about drinking “top totty” at cheap rates in the House of Commons “Strangers Bar” and drinking pints in a working man’s club? Anyway, I reckon you’d have a better laugh in the latter and at least be in decent company.
In one meticulously detailed scene from the novel, Seaton, after a gut-full of alcohol and a headfirst tumble down a flight of stairs, picks himself up and growls “there’s nowt wrong with me” and heads back to the bar for yet another pint. If he’d fallen down a flight of stairs in a pub today he’d probably have his solicitor on speed-dial to fast-track his claim for compensation and be seeing pound signs flashing in his brain instead of more beer. But Seaton is a man of times and qualities past with the sort of “sleeveless” stoicism, spirit of resilience and aspiration that love or hate his tough-man, macho behaviour, is hard not to respect and difficult to find in today’s more-entitled generation.
Sillitoe says he wrote the book from memory, and that although not autobiographical, said it “mirrors the sort of atmosphere” he grew up in and represents the spirit of the age through Seaton, an uncompromising character who says that “looney laws are made to be broken by blokes like me” and who flies in the face of the image of the law abiding, church attending, put upon working man of previous novelists who invite pity and charity (no wonder it took him an age to get his repeatedly rejected novel published).
It’s an unadorned and detailed account of the lives of so many others that prior to this novel had never been accurately portrayed, all other works of literature being about the lives of the upper echelons of society, written by the privileged and educated elite or by those who depicted the working classes in a romantic light or reduced them to the state of powerless and resigned victims, (i.e. Lawrence, Tressell) or reduced them to the “living corpses” as described in “Love On The Dole”.
Reading this novel and watching this play, you realise how few accurate accounts there are of working class life. We have been inundated with romantic notions of, or crass attacks on this section of society, by writers with no real nose for what they are supposedly recording. Hence our love affair with TV programmes such as “Downton”, “Midwives”, “Upstairs-Downstairs” and other such in-accurate, over-sentimentalised and ahistorical versions of life as they think it was for the “poor but happy” acquiescent masses. Or as depicted in “Shameless” where everyone is “on the take or make”, in dreary soap-operas where low-life is shown as either mad, bad or depressed, and in so-called liberal newspapers where you will find reams of sanctimoniuos articles about “chavs”, the “underclass” and welfare recipients in which people are depicted as fat, un-deserving, scrounging, pie-eating morons. Is there anyone out there who actually writes accurately, positively and insightfully about the working classes anymore, or does nobody actually care to go to the heart of the places where they exist for fear of what they might actually find and what questions this might raise?
Dunster chooses to bring the abortion (illegal at the time) scene to life, and an old zinc tin bath is wheeled on to the stage and Brenda (Clare Calbraith) stands naked – rather bravely at such close quarters, for all to see before sinking gin-soaked into the water for what seems like hours, while Arthur sits bath-side looking on. In the long scene that follows, the grimness of the account in the novel is somewhat eclipsed by the exchange of humorous wisecracks between Arthur and Brenda’s friend Emler (Jo Hartley) as they both try to help. Nobody moralises about Brenda’s abortion; they all just get on with it in their own pragmatic way, and those (and there are still plenty) who want to make abortion even more difficult for women to obtain, should take note of the awful, grim and depressing account of Brenda’s attempt to get rid of her unwanted pregnancy.
This scene is in contrast to the many happy and lively ones; Christmas day at aunties, where there is plenty of booze, laughter and family banter and a striking array of fifties cable-knit cardigans that the cast seemed to wear so well! And my favourite set of the performance was at the Goose Fair with all its candy-floss fun – a highlight in the cultural calendar of Nottingham folk back then. A fast-moving, action packed and enjoyable feature of Dunster’s slick production. The clever and simply enacted bobbing up and down that mimicked a carousel ride followed by the life-sized waltzer that was spun on to the stage and the fast rush through the dark and shadowy tunnel of a ghost train amid noisy carefree crowds was reminiscent of a rowdy day out on a sunny work-free day.
I have often been accused of being angry, and indeed am regularly – you should try it sometime! These days, people seem to think that getting angry is wrong or indicative of a problem that you must get analysed and seek professional help for instead of a perfectly understandable response to the many things that are amiss in this messed-up world. I think this might be the reason why I like Seaton, he is a man with anger in all the right places, who would never sit still on a counsellor’s couch or confess to what society defines as his failings! He’d say “Bogger off” to that! Anger management course or a stint in jail for incitement? Stop “boggering about”! I think Alan Sillitoe would turn in his grave at the slightest suggestion.
It’s an enjoyable piece of theatre that makes you yearn for a good old-fashioned Saturday night out, but is spoiled for me by comparisons with the novel, which I feel it failed to live up to. If you are a Sillitoe fan you might not think it worthy, but in its own right it is still a great piece of theatre with lots of Dunsters trademark wizardry, a versatile and top class cast and an impressive and memorable performance by Fitzpatrick (he does have a peculiar charm). You might also like Brendan O’Neill’s interview with the late Alan Sillitoe, and Mick Hume’s book review.