The Cutting of the Cloth
Southwark Playhouse (The Large)
The late Michael Hastings wrote this play in 1973. Tricia Thorn’s beautifully staged, finely acted production makes one amazed that it has never before been staged and could have lain in a drawer forgotten, even though listed in reference books.
Perhaps that is because it is so very demanding for it takes place in the cellarage workshop of Savile Row tailors. Its cast must not only give life to their characters but also convincingly carry out the work in which they are engaged.
These actors make them all very real people but also get on with their work like skilled tailors. It is a workshop to which the “front shop” sends down baste-jobs wrapped up in brown paper bundles. Even Paddy Brant, as the runner who delivers them (only seen as a shadow), has perfected the technique of throwing them around corners to land in the right place for each individual craftsman.
These parcels contains cloth already trimmed and chalked up by the cutter and a set of very detailed instructions to ensure perfect fit despite the client’s unbalanced and idiosyncratic physiology requiring stitching and shrinking and stretching and pressing. The cast do all these task as though they were their regular everyday jobs.
The Cutting of the Cloth gives a fascinating insight into a skilled craft that Hastings knew from the inside. He was a young apprentice in just such a Dover Street cellar as the designer Alex Marker creates here, where young lad called Maurice (James El-Sharawy) arrives on his first day of work.
It is 1953 and Maurice is apprenticed to master tailor Spijak Wazki, a Polish Jew from of generations of tailors who was brought to London as a lad. Spijak (Andy de la Tour) shares the workshop with Eric (Paul Rider), brother of his dead wife. There are not just family grudges, affection and resentment between them.
Spizak works entirely by hand, a proud believer in traditional skills, placing himself professionally better than Eric, who works with a sewing machine. But Eric has a much faster output—and makes more money.
Sydie Wazki (Alexis Caley) works for her father, a gentle contrast to her seemingly despotic father, while Eric has Iris (Abigail Thaw) as his assistant, who watches the two bosses bickering with cynical humour. It is an atmosphere full of long-standing affections and tensions.
The play shows professional pride set against commercial expediency but also the cost of putting work first. As it follows young Maurice through the first years of his apprenticeship, it reflects in microcosm a wider change in values and expectations that was gaining pace in the early 1950s. But that is all part of a story about people that makes you care and involves you.
It is a beautiful play given a production that couldn’t be bettered. It is moving, almost tragic and also very, very funny. It deserves to be seen much more widely but catch it now while you can.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton