West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Fast Labour has the admirable inevitability of Greek drama clothed in the serious concerns of contemporary Europe. In the first few minutes we meet Victor, a new 'illegal' from the Ukraine with a vocabulary of four or five English words and nothing but his culture to sustain him. In the last few minutes we see him fall from a position of wealth and power as a sophisticated gang master, handling his ex-bosses and importing 'illegals' from throughout Europe's third world to do the jobs that 21st century UK relies upon. In between we are party to one of the best home grown productions to grace the Playhouse's Courtyard Theatre in many a long year.
Start with casting (Siobhan Bracke): our three immigrants really do look the part, as do other cast members. And praise also for Dialect Coach Neil Swain who shapes a very realistic and believable array of accents which capture the attractiveness of English as a second language. And, dramatically useful in this context, the apparent innocence of those struggling with our tricky language.
Design: the stage features a basic changing set at, as it were, 'ground floor level' (with the addition of an over-snazzy and unnecessary real soil garden plot). The top half of the backdrop is formed by three rectangular screens. Here we are shown the intricacies of repetitive fish gutting, the endless swirl of A1M traffic, the plains of Lincolnshire, a view of Eli Cathedral. Mic Pool and Simon Daw provide a little contemporary theatrical magic. There is nothing flash or snazzy here! The camera is always steady, we are always seeing real time (or an illusion of it). Acres of ploughed land, unchanging, until a sea gull flops into view. Those upper screens somehow capture the beauty of rural England, but also the desolation experienced by the powerless immigrant.
Ian Brown's direction treads the same fine line of ambiguity captured by the video track. He teeters deliciously but never topples into the comedic for the sake of a laugh, or the tragic or the violent. The play is awash with the sense of deeply intelligent naturalism and all the directorial risk-taking that such an outcome requires. He doesn't cut corners, he doesn't play safe - and it pays off.
Steve Waters' carefully wrought script deserves nothing less. At times the dialogue (and production values to match) verges on the documentary. But this is very sophisticated theatre in which main plot and subplots are carefully linked structurally and emotionally. The whole has that sense of sequentially realised inevitability that gives theatre the edge on other media. It's gripping stuff. And imagine Waters' joy when he realised the full comedic and dramatic potential of having the actors speak broken English with delicious Eastern block accents - then deliver their shared Russian as fluent British dialect. The first time it happens you sense the held breath as the audience adjusts, and then the delight as the mighty device is applied with dexterity. But Waters doesn't stop there, each speech is tuned to its giver and its recipient. No shallow drama speak here then, rather we are treated to a master class in dramatic dialogue.
And finally the actors. Six on stage and each without exception gives a first class performance. It is as if this crew have had months of rehearsal (which of course they haven't). Such quality comes from dedication and excellence in all departments.
But it would be dishonest not to highlight the performance of Craig Kelly as Victor. He is mesmerising. Victor, we come to realise over the course of the evening, is one very complex character. Of course the exposition of idiopathic detail and development is down to Steve Waters' script, but few if any actors could match Kelly's astounding realisation of the part. Rarely off stage for more than a few seconds he is, without doubt, the king-pin of this production. And yet even so the whole is greater than the individual parts.
Plays of this calibre, and productions of this calibre, are few and far between. Thank god they are still around. So much contemporary theatre has had the guts kicked out of it by writers and actors who devote time and energy to the trash factory of TV soap and series.
Until 17th May, then at Hampstead Theatre: 30th May - 26th July
Philip Fisher reviewed this production at Hampstead
Reviewer: Ray Brown