A rollicking romp around the stalls of Romford fills the Union Theatre, Southwark, in a joyous revival of David Eldridge’s Market Boy. It premiered at the Royal National Theatre in May 2006. Here it is packed into the confines of a stage that would fit into a corner of the Olivier. The vast expanse is no loss and intimacy is the reward. Katy Slater sets the tone as Fat Annie as she mingles with the audience chatting and offering cups of tea as a form of prologue.
A rollicking romp around the stalls of Romford.
The Union Theatre never flinches from putting on large scale productions, despite the obvious restrictions. As with his recent Othello, Justin Williams has created a fulsome set, this time for the vendors plying their cd’s and leather, fish and fruit and endless boxes of shoes, with the split-level carrying the butcher aloft the arched lock-up, surveying the scene. Alex Musgrave lights up the set and adds to the delight of disco and dance sequences with a kaleidoscope of colour that flashes to the beat of the 80’s in routines tightly choreographed and staged by Adam Haigh.
Politically the decade in which the play is set was dominated by the the UK’s first female prime minister and Rachel Fenwick gives a delightfully loathsome portrayal of the milk-snatcher, revelling in the adulation of the stallholders, complete with a half-empty bottle, the famous handbag and withering looks. The eponymous character, aged only thirteen when the play starts, is brought to the market by Mum to find a job. Amy Gallagher conveys anxious maternal concerns about her son’s future as she nevertheless pushes him into working with the hardened, mocking vendors. His journey through this world forms the substance of the drama. For the most part it’s all very light-hearted, but there are more serious themes and moments and Gallagher, as the single parent in need of love, sensitively highlights many of these. Meanwhile, Tommy Knight embarks on the Boy’s new venture, looking appropriately forlorn, lost and nervous. He grows up quickly and Knight smoothly brings about the Boy’s growth into an assertive, confident and cocky market stalwart. His maturation is a piece of theatrical magic in which he never fully loses his boyish charm. Helping him along is Trader, who takes him under his wings. Andy Umerah has the market revolving around him as he takes centre stage in all the wheelings and dealings, oozing smooth-talking worldliness and a seductive air.
Snooks (Joey Ellis), Don (Callum Higgins) and Mouse (Joe Mason) form a trio of traders who keep the lively banter running throughout. Each makes his own mark, but Ellis shines with a particular intensity and passion combined with a stunning transformation from thwarted tea-maker to city gent. There’s plenty for everyone in this script and if the characters might sometimes be classified as stereotypes, there’s an indulgent joy to be had in seeing them portrayed. Lucy Walker-Evans poses perfectly in lavish make-up, dresses and shoes as Most Beautiful Woman in Romford, while Taylor George’s Fish Woman does anything but flounder, punching out some of the smuttiest lines of the night, of which there are plenty. In contrast, Grant Leat as Meat Man wields his cleaver with a certain charm, waiting almost the whole play before delivering an eloquent monologue on the preparation of steak. Mat Betteridge as The Toby rules the market, brandishing his steel headed hammer, in a no-nonsense performance that leaves it quite clear who is charge and that the rest must pay for the privilege of having him around. Immune to most of this is Drew Elston as Steve the Nutter, visibly reminding us that this was also a somewhat drug-crazed time and is probably seeing all the colours everywhere that Oliver Westlake as Jason has on his jumper.
Director Nicky Allpress and casting director Adam Braham had their work cut out in finding over twenty actors for this production, but they have put together an ensemble of talent whose members clearly enjoy working together as a team, bouncing off each other to bring out their best and manifesting an ebullient sense of camaraderie. It’s impossible to mention everyone, but let there be no doubt that there are no weak links in this production.
Some might baulk at the level of political incorrectness in the script while others might reflect upon the wealth of linguistic imagery that has been lost in its cause. Times move on, and even in the few years that this play scans the end of an era was approaching. The Iron Lady was becoming molten and the East-end traders who literally sang her praises in ‘85 are feeling the pinch by ‘88. Boom goes to bust and no one is immune from its effects and among all the flamboyant fun there are tear-welling moments when events both national and personal impact on people’s lives.
Is Market Boy a damning indictment of the free-market greed of the period? No. Is it an in-depth coming-of-age study? No. Is it highly entertaining and packed full of action? Absolutely. There are times when it’s just a joy to spend an evening at the theatre being entertained for the sake of it. This is one of them. Don’t miss the opportunity!