Waiting for Lefty

Clifford Odets
White Bear Theatre

Waiting for Lefty Credit: Tim Francis
Felix Trench as Clayton and Jordan Lee as Fatt Credit: Tim Francis
Holly McLay as Edna and Dominic Morgan as Joe Credit: Tim Francis
Kate Winter as Florence and Paul Harnett as Sid Credit: Tim Francis
Leila Sykes as Miller and David Blackwell as Fayette Credit: Tim Francis
Karl Reay as Dr Benjamin and David Blackwell as Dr Barnes Credit: Tim Francis
Sid Phoenix as Agate and Felix Trench as Clayton Credit: Tim Francis

When Clifford Odets's play about a union deciding to strike was written in 1935 and staged by the Group Theatre (formed by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford) it had a considerable impact both for its content and its form.

That was a time when, still deep in depression, the US had nearly a quarter of its workforce unemployed and the National Housing Act had recently created the Federal Housing Administration in an effort to deal with increasing homelessness and the thousands living on the streets.

Britain too was still suffering from the depression when Unity Theatre staged the first London production a year later. Now, more than three-quarters of a century later, the Unity Theatre Trust has supported the staging of this timely revival, the first full London performance for more than thirty years.

The play has not lost any of its force and this cast at the White Bear plays it with conviction.

Director Christopher Emms has sought to increase its relevance by setting it in the present day, though the costumes don’t look noticeably modern. However an unchanged text, with its implicit reference to the Roosevelt New Deal administration and to Soviet Russia, places it firmly in the 30s. This makes the use of a mobile seem an anachronistic oddity, though it is a nice touch to have a young man leaving the girl he loves because he can’t afford to marry her taking a photo as a keepsake.

That seems the only jarring note in an excellent revival that follows the style of the original by treating the whole audience as members of the taxi-drivers union and placing some of the cast among them. Indeed it goes a stage further by giving everyone a union badge to mark their induction, though this didn’t result in any actual audience participation at the performance I saw. Not surprising since the accents are American and the situation not quite theirs. Nevertheless the emotional charge is there and the message still relevant.

Members are already gathered waiting for their chairman Lefty to arrive and open the meeting talking things over and soon the domineering Fatt is speaking firmly against a strike. As the meeting continues in the background we see a number of what Odets called “vignettes” play out individual situations, the union members sometimes adding their own comment on the scene.

We are not only presented with the economic differentials between exploited worker and the bosses, the power of capital and its effect on the ordinary worker but ideological differences between those making money out of armaments (in this case developing poison gas) and those who have lost loved ones in war. There is an illustration of racist discrimination (in this case against Jews), the curtailment of charitable work and the way poverty is destroying families.

It may be firmly rooted in the thirties agit-prop approach but the performances make it real life. There is Sid Phoenix’s outspoken Agate, Holly McLay’s Edna urging her husband Joe (Dominic Morgan) to take action, Karl Reay’s Dr Benjamin, told he can’t operate on a pauper. Kate Wyler is Florence, demanding the right to chose her own life, Paul Harnett is Sid her boyfriend, Leila Sykes plays Miller (a gender change from the original) refusing to work against her conscience.

Set against them are David Blackwell as Miller’s Boss (and as Dr Benjamin’s senior doctor) Jordan Lee as reactionary spokesman Fatt, Duke Duffy as his tough henchman and Felix Trench as the bosses’ spy. Emily Harwood keeps the design sparse and simple with Joseph Capes’s lighting marking the transitions to the vignette.

It is powerful stuff that packs a lot into fifty minutes.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton