It is one of those mysteries as to why certain playwrights are completely unrecognised in their own countries but have great popularity abroad. If you ignore his own company, The Wrestling School it is very hard to find any recent productions of Howard Barker plays in Britain.
Fortuitously for him, he is far more popular overseas and, while some of his work can be inaccessible, this revival of his 1975 play Claw is a reminder of just was a good playwright he is.
This is a satirical play about politics and society in the United Kingdom during the 30 years from the end of the Second World War. It has also proved to be prescient as many of its ideas and characters would have been equally recognisable in the thirty years following its original production.
We first see Claw, or Noel Biledew, as a babe in arms whose mother, played by a very chirpy Imogen Dobbs, has to explain to his emasculated, communist leaning not-father how he came to conceived when they had not met for five years.
By the time that he is nine, our hero is already well on the way to his future career and as soon as he has left school, he can proudly announce that he is earning money as a pimp. However, he has always had ideas above his station and he is soon treating his mother to tea at Fortnum's on his ill-gotten gains. While there, this shiny-suited spiv even recruits the waitress for his empire.
If the first act moves Claw from short-sighted childhood to youthful career, the second takes him into the top league, providing a corrupt Tory Home Secretary, played by Martin Ritchie and looking suspiciously like Michael Portillo (surely a coincidence!), with an assortment of big-breasted girls. This soon leads to a roadside affair with Tara Lester as the minister's former chorus girl wife and thence to an assault on a policeman.
This is where Claw bites off more than he can chew and requires assistance from his political chum to escape jail. The price that he ends up paying is high. The second act ends with the Home Secretary on the phone to friends for help to rid him of the young entrepreneur. The two provide a pretty depressing view of the upwardly mobile in 70s Britain. The dishonest politician and the wide-boy on the make summarise all that was worst about that decade and the next.
The third act commences with Claw in an asylum with two minders far madder than he will ever be. One is a reprieved IRA Bomber while the other is the former gleeful assistant to the last hangman before the abolition of the death sentence. These two, played by Adrian Clargo and Edward Rees, provided very deadpan delivery of some extremely funny lines. It is inevitable with this mean a combination that the play will have a far from happy ending.
The acting from a very young company is generally good, with the performance of Tom Bacon in the title role particularly impressive. The realisation of the play owes a great deal to director Jonathan Loe whose fast pace ensures that Claw seems far shorter than its 2 hours 45 minutes and that it constantly entertains and amuses.
This kind of political writing has gone out of fashion in the United Kingdom at the moment, which is a great shame. Serious satirical writing about the attitudes of a country seems an exceptionally civilised way of debunking its hypocrisies. Howard Barker can be a master of that art.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher