Foam

Harry McDonald’s Foam, at the Finborough Theatre, is a chronological series of snapshots that capture events in the life of Nicky Crane (1958-1993). If you wondering who he was, join the club. Not that is should be necessary, but if you swat up on his life you will understand far more of the play.

Richards gives a strong performance in which he embraces a wide emotional range

The five scenes take place in April 1974, June 1978, September 1988, August 1990 and November 1993. For those who didn’t live through the period it’s also worth acquiring some background to the social and political context in which he grew up. In April 1968 Enoch Powell, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton and Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, gave what became known as the Rivers of Blood speech. Powell was an outstanding academic and his speeches were often riddled with allusions, references and imagery rooted in the Classics, which he had read at Trinity College, Cambridge. On this occasion he drew on a prophecy from Virgil's Aeneid, from which the title of the play is derived. “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'”. The body of his speech struck a chord with those who felt their country was being overrun by an almost open-door policy towards immigrants from Commonwealth countries. It fuelled the flames of racial hatred and it cost him his job. But the scholar had spoken for the masses and it opened up the floodgates to a wave of racism not encountered since the antisemitism of the brown shirts and the Battle of Cable Street. In particular his speech appealed to a growing number in the skinhead movement who were attracted to a neo-Nazi philosophy.

The series of vignettes, explores the often complex relationship between homosexuality, the skinhead movement and right wing (fascist) politics as Nicky (Jake Richards) encounters individuals from various walks of life. Aged fifteen, he has been followed into a public lavatory, cruising territory with which he is already familiar. He spends some time (too long) shaving his head. A much older man enters who has been stalking the boy. He’s called Mosley. With the moustache, Matthew Baldwin bears a certain facial resemblance to Sir Oswald Mosley (1896-1980), founder and leader of the British Union of Fascists and speaks in a similar manner, which is painfully slow. Director Matthew Iliffe clearly chose to play this entire scene in a ponderous lentissimo. It generates an exploratory air as Mosley questions Nicky about about his beliefs, commitments and habits, but makes for an agonisingly tedious opening whose effects are difficult to shrug off, even though the pace picks up in the following scenes.

With his new Dr Martens, a gift from Mosley, who seductively licks them before handing them to him, he is ready to go into the world and especially to a club recommended by Mosley for boys like him. Over the remaining scenes, Richards convincingly transforms himself from schoolboy, to punk rocker, to gay porn performer, to bouncer in a gay bar and finally to the man on his death bed with an AIDS related condition; all via a four-year term in prison. Richards gives a strong performance in which he embraces a wide emotional range, a number of ages and a development of character.

These scenes all take place in various lavatories, with a curtain pulled over the toilets for the final hospital episode. The set, by Nitin Parmar, is starkly simplistic yet powerfully representative of a immaculately well-sanitised public convenience, complete with that special style of white tiles. It’s given a less-than-realistic warm purplish/pink hue, by Jonathan Chan’s lighting design, which makes it seem camp enough for a later conversion to a cocktail bar.

Needing no conversion, Gabriel is the subject of a seduction scene, which establishes the play’s gay credentials, while Chris, a fellow actor, spots Nick's Nazi tattoos and so declines to socialise with him but would gladly have sex with him. Both parts are played by Kishore Walker who successfully creates two distinct characters across the gay spectrum.

With his impressive height and physique, chequered past and moments of violence, Nicky stands out and is recognised by Bird (Keanu Adolphus Johnson) who commands this next scene with his anti-fascist tirade that does more than the others to expose Nicky for who he is and the tightrope he walks. He later plays the nurse in the hospital scene where Baldwin reappears, this time as Nicky’s partner, emotionally tormented, angry and compassionate.

With a weak opening and some parts of the scenes that seem redundant, Foam is interesting rather than gripping. The hospital conclusion, although historically accurate, has had a place in so many plays that it comes across as no more than yet another unimaginative version of what we’ve seen so many times before. If you know about the life of Nicky Crane, then there is perhaps some appeal in seeing it staged in this format, which must omit so much. If you know nothing of him, Foam, is simply a rather odd collection of scenes.

Reviews by Richard Beck

Multiple Venues

Community Service

★★★★
Drayton Arms Theatre

Besa

★★★★
Liverpool Playhouse

My Beautifull Laundrette

★★
Old Red Lion Pub

Horne's Descent

★★★
Westcliff High School For Boys

Les Misérables (School Edition)

★★★★★
Finborough Theatre

Foam

★★

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

“You forget I knew you were a queer long before I knew you were a fascist.”

The world premiere

1973, a public lavatory. Nicky shaves his head, watched by an older man.

Publicly, Nicky is a skinhead. And a Neo-Nazi. But right now, in this place, that doesn’t matter.

He’s not the first man Nicky meets in a public toilet, and he won’t be the last…

Spanning twenty years and inspired by a true story, Foam examines the nature of identity and the consequences of right-wing extremist ideology against the backdrop of London’s skinhead and gay scenes of the 1970s and 1980s.

With right-wing extremism again on the rise, Foam confronts the flashpoint where the terrifyingly personal and the violently political collide.

The second play by new British playwright Harry McDonald, Foam is directed by Matthew Iliffe who returns to the Finborough Theatre where he most recently directed the multi-award-winning world premiere of Sophie Swithinbank’s Bacon for which he was named Best Director of a Play at the OffWestEnd Awards. Following its Finborough run, Bacon has been seen in London, Bristol, Edinburgh and New York City.

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