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The Frontline

Ché Walker
Shakespeare's Globe
(2008)

Production photo

Dominic Dromgoole may have taken Shakespeare's Globe in an unexpected direction with this contemporary tale of love and war on London's streets but, despite opening on the wettest of days, The Frontline continues what is turning into a storming year for the theatre.

For the first time, the theatre is hosting a play about life today and a Monsterist epic to boot. Ché Walker has created a state of the nation (or city anyway) piece that will literally shock some dedicated Globeites out of the theatre with its street language and morals.

It has to be said that one would bet that if he could have understood the hip street argot, old William S. would have enjoyed the ambition and scope of the evening.

Set outside an unnamed London tube station in an area where the locals come from every part of the globe (the big one), The Frontline has little plot or sustained storytelling. However, like David Eldridge's Market Boy at the National, it informs through its portrayal of short samples of London life today.

It is loosely narrated by John Stahl playing Erkenwald, a philosophical Scottish hotdog salesman, with some help from his kebab-toting competitor, Kevork Malikyan as Mahmoud.

Throughout, director Matthew Dunster keeps multiple stories playing on a street where religious happy clappers led by the honey-voiced Golda Rosheuvel's Beth compete with the attractions of strip joints and the food peddlers make less money than the youngsters with their dope.

Love and anger both boil up many times with the central story, if there is one, featuring Beru Tessema playing a second generation immigrant from Ethiopia, Miruts, a bright boy with too much pride; and a bright-eyed London Underground worker, Sally Bretton's Donna.

Miruts' fate is foretold, and keeps us going as so many other tales flash by, building into a large-canvas portrait of our city today where sadly, so many can sing, "We're desperate and we're invisible".

It is always unfair to pick stars out from an ensemble of this type but the audience did it for us with their enthusiastic applause for Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Babydoll, 16 going on 40. The actress did a brilliant job of portraying a disrespectful teenager, getting every syllable of the cheeky intonation absolutely right, as she wound up her "dancer" mother Violet (Jo Martin).

Not far behind was Trystan Gravelle with his hilarious send-up of an increasingly desperate Welsh actor, Mordechai Thurrock, who might have come straight from Withnail and I.

The 2½ hours contain much comedy and a fair amount of violence from this city on fire. Olly Fox's great soundtrack (with song writing help from the playwright and Arthur Darvill) mixing jazz, rap and hip-hop, also adds much.

The Globe is rightly devoted to the man from Stratford but a venture challenging the Royal Court and the Bush but with a much bigger budget is very welcome. There is no doubt that, on this showing, the experiment with modern subject matter should be repeated next year.

The pit groundlings, soaked throughout, loved it and it is great to think that their word of mouth will ensure that a new, younger audience will see the Globe as a happening place to visit this summer.

Matt Boothman reviewed the 2009 revival

Reviewer: Philip Fisher