Review – Stovepipe – National Theater/Bush Theater at West 12, Shepherds Bush


Today I went up to Shepherds Bush to see Stovepipe, a new play by Adam Brace that the National is mounting in conjunction with the Bush Theater at … er, a shopping mall in Shepherd’s Bush.

Now, this was weird. I mean, I knew it was in a mall, but still – West 12 is one of those sad little run-down malls that seems to have seen its heyday eclipsed (by Westfields, I think) and has lots of empty storefronts and fairly low-rent retailers in the space that remains. On the other hand – what better place to do a show? And for us sad saps, there was a nice sign right on the front telling us where to go – straight back to the Morrisons and then to the right, where a little storefront had a sort of bar/coffee shop installed so that show go-ers didn’t just have to mill about in the mall’s halls waiting for something to happen. Sadly, I wasn’t able to laze around in the environment, as I needed to go to the ladies, and people were being led out the doors as I came out (at about 3 minutes ’til showtime) to a back alley exit from the mall to the actual place where the performance would happen. (Be warned: get there at least 5 minutes before showtime or risk being left behind!)

Then we went down the stairs into some sort of storage slash utility system underneath West 12. It was a world of heavy cement bricks, flat walls, Arabic graffiti … we were sliding into the world of Stovepipe. We walked into a sleazy looking conference center, where we were given passes marking us as contractors, and were welcomed into a world of … displays of military equipment and TVs showing videos of the many remarkable accomplishments that had taken place since the invasion. “Thousands of new homes built!” (And me personally responsible for them being destroyed in the first place.) Later talks of how loyalty could be bought with food and a steady electricity supply rang with a certain degree of irony. We were then led into a side hall, where we were sat down and given a speech from “a great war hero and man of business,” which is suddenly interrupted by … an emergency … light overhead … we need to evacuate.

WOW. What was actually amazing me about this show was that it was running enough on the edge that I was actually feeling a little nervous as I went through the space and kind of unsure about what was going to happen to us. Sometimes we were watching a clear “scene,” in which we were pretending to watch guys in an armored vehicle driving, but with the guns pointing everywhere I found myself distinctly uncomfortable and unclear about how well the audience/performer line was being drawn. Most of the scenes had a feeling like we were just dropping in, watching Alan (Shaun Dooley) hanging out with his friends Eddy (Niall MacGregor) and Grif (Christian Bradley – as well as playing the soldier of war we saw earlier), laughing about how weird their job is, tossing back drinks and fooling around with each other, just being guys. The production was both sympathetic and, I think, realistic about the situation of these “mercenaries” – yeah, sure, they are soldiers for hire, but they’re also guys who maybe don’t have a lot of other marketable skills and may not be nearly as capable of walking away as we imagine they are.

I particularly liked the scenes where we were effectively part of the action. This would not be when Alan was arguing with his boss’s wife, Carolyn (the extremely talented, quick-change-artist extraordinaire Eleanor Matsuura) in their offices, but rather when he and his friends, say, went into a darkened building where we had been forced to huddle like refugees while they searched for explosives or other contraband. The experience was sharp and the fact of where we were and what we were doing fell away from me. I distinctly no longer felt like I was watching a show; I was in it, in a way Masque of the Red Death had not managed to accomplish. Yeah, sure, I recognized that the chick with the high cheekbones was the same in each scene, but clattering around in cheap high heels, she was so clearly the Russian prostitute, and there was no mistaking her with the (perfectly accented) American journalist that never seemed to have any real purpose in the plot. And Sargon Yelda – I can’t believe he actually had more than one role, as he disappeared as an obnoxious American and then seemed to only have shown up for the very first time as the Iraqi translator hiding in Jordan. I was really quite impressed with the acting talent on display.

Overall, I consider this to have been a very high value return on my twenty quid, despite the fact that I got blisters from all the walking around I did in my new shoes. If you like this kind of stuff – or if you like plays about modern society, politics or war (would really like to know how this compares to Black Watch!) – this would be a good show for you to see.

(This review is for a show that took place on Sunday, March 23rd. Stovepipe continues through April 26th, 2009.)

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2 Responses to “Review – Stovepipe – National Theater/Bush Theater at West 12, Shepherds Bush”

  1. Sans Taste Says:

    Bizarre that we were actually at the same performance of the same show and could come out with such different views. While I agree the acting was fairly superb and it was nice to be close to the action (at one point my theatre blogging days were nearly ended by a flying crutch) to me the plot just felt light and it lacked the attention to detail of something like Masque of the Red Death.

    • webcowgirl Says:

      It had this going for it: it made me feel real emotion. Masque was beautiful, but left me high and dry.

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