The Frontline

Shakespeare’s Globe, 8 – 23 May 2009

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

In 2008, Ché Walker’s The Frontline became the first contemporary play staged at Shakespeare’s Globe. Now, in 2009, Matthew Dunster’s production has returned to the venue: confirmation, if it were needed, that contemporary work now forms a permanent part of the Globe’s programming.

As if to ease sceptics into the change, Walker’s play is Shakespearean in its structure and scope. Presenting a chaotic day in the life of London’s “Invisibles” – dealers, addicts, cleaners, lap dancers and evangelist chuggers – the play is overseen by a Scottish hot dog vendor (John Stahl) who bookends each act with direct appeals to the audience, in the grand Elizabethan tradition.

This corner of London is populated by an ensemble of 23. Their lives, stories, arguments, debates and dialogues overlap and interlock to create a vibrant, living, continuous street scene.

The amount of action all happening at once, coupled with the wide range of sociolects in use, make some threads difficult to follow, and some of the cast strain to make their voices heard in the upper galleries. But exuberant physical business generally fills in the gaps, and that sense of everything happening at once is the point; you can’t catch every detail of the goings-on around you in real life, either.

There’s death and despair and drug dealing and other features of London’s underbelly, but on balance the tone of the show is overwhelmingly optimistic, inspiring panto-style applause and baddie-booing.

A selection of hip-hop, blues, jazz, reggae, gospel and swing numbers, with self-consciously musical theatre-style dance routines, have the audience clapping along, and there are several touching romances. Paul Lloyd and Matthew J Henry earn the most affection, as Seamus, a middle-aged Irishman in a two-tone suit, and Benny, a high-camp Beyoncé fan in pink cycle shorts and bling who turns Seamus’s attempts to remould him on their head.

As well as a few alterations to the cast, the new production exists in a new context. No longer representative of a bold step in an unfamiliar direction, The Frontline is now triumphant evidence of the success of that step.

Not only that, but it follows hard on the heels of another large-scale ensemble-cast London community play, Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice at the National, and benefits from the comparison. Bean’s play was full of national and cultural stereotypes (albeit in order to lampoon them); Walker’s is populated by three-dimensional characters (with notable exceptions). Bean’s play hung gaudy, distracting lampshades on its moral messages; Walker’s shows rather than tells, letting the action speak for itself.

Written by Ché Walker

Crew includes Matthew Dunster (director), Paul Wills (designer), Olly Fox (composer) and Georgina Lamb (choreographer)

Cast includes Trystan Gravelle (Mordechai Thurrock), Matthew J Henry (Benny), Paul Lloyd (Seamus), Kevork Malikyan (Mahmoud), Golda Rosheuvel (Beth), John Stahl (Erkenwald) and Beru Tessema (Miruts)

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