Singer

Peter Flannery

Oxford Stage Company at the Tricycle, Kilburn

(2004)

Review by Philip Fisher

The last time that director Sean Holmes made an appearance at the Tricycle Theatre, he had a major hit with The Price, one of our top five plays of last year. Now with the Oxford Stage Company's production of Singer he has come up with something that may well be as good.

Peter Singer is a man with five lives, none of them dull. In a performance reminiscent of his eponymous Howard Katz in Patrick Marber's play at the National Theatre, Ron Cook catches the charm, the pathos and the wicked drive of a superbly complex but entertaining character, endowed by Peter Flannery with a wonderful way with words.

This man may have been "born in the camp" - Auschwitz - but he very much lived in post-war Britain and reflects its mores for the forty or so years until the advent of Thatcherism. This is where the play scores: it cruelly anatomises the country, as it simultaneously does the man.

On a bare, large stage with witty props designed by Anthony Lamble, such as a red telephone box that doubles as the young Singer's office and a wheel-on slum tenement, the play opens with a shocking view of camp life that could have come straight from Primo Levi. There, the hero teams up with Edward Peel as the simple Manik; and his alter ego the calm Stefan (John Light). All are haunted by their experience and all have to deal with their ghosts in different ways.

In England, Peter Singer becomes a barely concealed copy of Peter Rachman the notorious slum landlord. He is the man who gave his name to Rachmanism (or Singerism) and in this depiction makes his money from "Schwarz and Tarts".

This is a man with "a front the size of Harrods". He is entirely without morals and it is inevitable that as life comes full circle for him after a Reggie Perrin-like resurrection and twenty years working the soup kitchens ("St Peter of the South Bank)", he will become a prototypical hero of the 1980s capitalists but always with a brutal honesty that entirely escapes them.

What is really great about Singer is the way that it balances the brash, greedy but always somehow seductive Briton with the internally-haunted Polish Jew that underlies him. The ghosts are always just under the surface, except in one terrifyingly true-to-life scene where the camp survivors are confronted by one of their torturers 25 years on.

Sean Holmes is bound to have a big success with this revival and it will be fully deserved. Ron Cook, taking on a role created by Anthony Sher in the late 1980s, catches the man perfectly. He is well supported by Light and Peel in contrasting ways, as well as Hattie Morahan as Ruby, a Sixties hippie who becomes a disenchanted Eighties political wife.

Every year, the Tricycle puts on at least one show that should not be missed. Singer falls into that category and since it is only March, maybe this year there will be more. Go and see it while the opportunity is there.

John Light, Edward Peel & Ron Cook in Singer

John Light (Stefan), Edward Peel (Manik) and Ron Cook (Peter Singer)
Photograph by John Haynes