Our Style Is Legendary
Hard Graft Theatre Company.
Tristan Bates Theatre
This new play is a picture of teenage life on a rundown Nottingham council in the late 1980s and early 90s. Rich White's set (his first - he's a sculptor) is a number of panels that at first suggest concrete blocks or the walls of a pedestrian underpass which can be moved around by the cast to indicate different locations or interiors such as a classroom At the rear, glimpsed between them, are some flowers tied onto a lamp-post, a reminder of some past tragic death.
Roaming around already chatting to the audience as they come in is a character, played by James Hooton (who has been given time off from Emmerdale to appear in this drama), who is swigging beer from a can. He calls himself 'the Swinging Man' (perhaps from the track on the Black Flag's 1984 album My War) and acts as a sort of 'chorus to this history', describing the Nottingham he knows, its posh parts and the not posh, like where this is set, and hovers over some scenes as well as marking time passing through the years to introduce others. He reminds us of Nottingham's coat of arms with its twin stags and the city's motto which gives this play its title. He too is one of the losers from Nottingham's underbelly and his up front vernacular tells it as it is, describing how he 'came home to find mum hanging from the light fittings, piss running down her stretch-marked thighs.'
After his 'welcome' we are presented with a couple of young kids who've just crashed their bikes into each other. Michael is black with no dad, just a cash-strapped mom, while Daniel is white from a rather better-off household, though his dad beats him up. They've both got Raleighs, the bikes made in Nottingham, though Danny's is very much smarter and he lets Michael ride it. Soon they are planning to meet and exchange tapes of their favourite music and the next time we see them Michael is introducing Danny to glue sniffing - wel,l actually Old Spice after-shave. They loath the smell but it still gives them a high.
Succeeding scenes give us glimpses of their lives as they pass through their school years, along with the other members of their 'posse'. Stone, a little older and full of frustrations and bravado, is the heaviest drinker, and soon carries a knife and later a gun. Much more grounded is Shelley, a girl who gets very close to Danny and vainly tries to keep the boys on the straight and narrow.
These kids aren't all stupid and it is not all gloom. There is a delightful school scene, with the Swinging Man leaning in as though he's the teacher, with Danny and Shelley carrying on their own conversation between a more obviously audible dialogue of accurate though ill-accented French. Later Danny and Michael lie back on the grass expressing hopes as well as frustrations and talk about love, even their love for each other, marriage and children.
Director Laura Farnworth has welded her company together, drawing well integrated performances from her players who, though visibly older, all manager to capture the youth of these characters.
Dimeji Sadiq, making his professional debut, is forceful as Michael. Annishia Lunette is also a relative newcomer, not long out of RADA; as Shelley she gives a girl visible growing up with more assurance than the boys. Kent Riley (at 13 already in the West End as the Artful Dodger and with six years behind him in Hollyoaks) plays all the unpleasant side of Stone yet at the same time suggests the vulnerability under his bullying. Stone so longs to be the tough guy and he has to handle a very difficult scene in which he imagines himself like Robocop being riddled with bullets and still not succumbing. That manages to turn horror into pathos. As Danny, Jarrod Cooke, whose television credits seem to include roles in most of the soaps, gives us someone who changes according to which of his friends is currently exerting most influence. It is a subtle performance that is central to the play.
There are times when you feel these teenagers are people you would cross to the other side of the road to avoid but Daniel Hoffman-Gill's play makes you share experience, one with which many will be able to identify and one which, though set twenty years ago, could find many parallels in Britain today. Our Style Is Legendary is not a play that offers either reasons or solutions but a sharing. Though the Swinging Man chorus is very much a theatrical device, the play rings true, perhaps partly because it is directly based on his own experience for it is dedicated to Michael, his best friend who died of an overdose when he was only 16 and the characters' names are the same as those of the real people.
Runs until 2nd April 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton