It’s nice to see the Wellcome Collection (and by extension Wellcome Trust) expanding into theatre. The organisation has put on some fascinating work in the past, and their gallery is a great place to spend an hour mulling over the mix of art and science.
But did they really have to make something as flat as Pressure Drop their premiere piece?
Well, perhaps flat’s not quite the right term to use. A rather cramped promenade set out across three mini-stages and accompanied by 80’s rocker Billy Bragg with band, Pressure Drop is part of the Identity Project series. In this case, question is “What is the identity of the modern white working class?”
Now, I’m foreign, so some of the impact may well be lost on me, but I feel like I’ve been in England long enough to have spotted all the tickboxes:
-Sense of entitlement
-THEY’RE TAKING URRR JERBS
-Desires for the future
-Sense of community
-Sense of lost community
In other words, it’s a two hour episode of EastEnders. Family patriarch Ron has died, and while unemployed factory man Jack is being pressured by loudmouthed friend Tony (played as a masterful cunt by David Kennedy) to stand in the council elections for the BNP, prodigal son Jon returns from New York after escaping his working class roots and making it in New York as a stockbroker, and Jack’s intelligent and artistic song George (Shea Davis as a remarkably non-annoying kid) is bullied by Tony’s son, the chavtastic Barney. Rounding off the tropes are kind Nana (June Watson) and Jack’s unhappy and unsure wife Jacqui.
Well, we’ve seen it all before. Jon is aghast at what’s happened to his old friends (or rather how little has), he’s kicked down for ascending and becoming an outsider, Tony spends the entire play being a loudmouthed racist, and the funeral barely happens in peace.
It’s all well handled by the actors, but Mick Gordon (book and direction) seems to have banged the play out in about as much time as it’s taking me to write this review. The night I went (final preview, thanks for the press tickets), the show ran 30 minutes over time, and it fails utterly in one of its key scenes: Jack consistently delays his decision to sign the paperwork and stand for office, and his ultimate decision is made due to an offstage conversation with George which would have had far more impact had it been presented on stage, thereby breaking one of Mamet’s rules of good drama. Jacqui is given too little to do (a sign of genuine working class women?), and while we’re supposed to hate Tony, the character is so utterly unlikeable that it was tempting to take advantage of the promenade staging and deck him multiple times onstage. Likewise, the reveal that Jack’s party is the BNP is given away FAR too early, without enough time to build to hit the audience emotionally. We see the flier in the first scene, we can predict the rest. There is a clever trick which I shan’t spoil here (it’s perhaps the smartest part of the show), but there’s a lot of standard fare surrounding it.
The advert’s selling points, however, are Billy Bragg’s music and performance along with the hybrid promenade/installation staging. Both are nice, both are entirely superfluous. The music provides commentary, but doesn’t engage the cast or the story except for one song which everybody here can guess. And how ironic it is that the racist will dance to a song covered by The Specials and originated as a reggae piece. But that’s part of it, innit? Anyhow, Bragg’s in fine voice but those coming to see him will be disappointed by how little he actually does, and the fact that it’s him is superfluous.
As for the promenade staging, it’s a clever use of the Wellcome’s space, but with only three locations in a relatively small space, the piece doesn’t really have room to portray a neighbourhood and uses the device more to avoid set changes than involvement. Compared to, say, Mincemeat or works of a certain well known company, the promenade is wasted: Pressure Drop would work just as well on a proscenium stage or in a black box as the prom style and lose nothing.
So is Pressure Drop worth seeing? It’s not bad, and if you arrive early enough you can wander through the Wellcome’s free gallery first, but it’s ultimately trying too hard and revealing too little. The Corrie Omnibus on Sunday has about as much to say, and won’t set you back £20, but there is something about seeing it live and up close which helps. But in the end, team, the pressure's gonna drop on you.