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Review of As A Man Grows Younger at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre 19 – 23 February 2019
Calling out resurgent fascism is a recurring trope on the left. Some manifestations uniform themselves unambiguously: the National Front, the British National Party and Tommy Robinson among them. Others are opaque and conjectural – ‘Trump’, ‘Brexit’ and ‘Universal Credit’, for example.
Howard Colyer’s one-hander, As A Man Grows Younger, is a visceral transport into the life of a writer struggling against the backdrop of Mussolini’s rise. Italo Svevo is today best known for his friendship with James Joyce; the setting for this drama is 1920s Trieste where the two writers lived.
Trieste at that time bore the enduring stamp of an Imperial Free City – a cultural and commercial crossroads of plural ethnicities and an international identity. Fin de Siècle artists and thinkers were drawn to this Viennese seaport in an atmosphere far removed from Mussolini’s reactionary populism.
Svevo’s monologue describes the haphazard trajectory that has brought him literary success, and to the brink of psychological collapse. Joyce is invoked to sprinkle stardust and a couple of good gags. The real off-stage interlocutors, however, are Il Duce and the disintegration of a multi-ethnic supra-national state.
David Bromley delivers a kinetically compelling 70 minute, performance, brimful with the contradictions under which his character struggles. He dotes on his wife, but she is an enthusiastic fascist fund raiser. He fears the secret police, but goads the authorities in his work. His greatest success is stopping smoking – so he does it repeatedly.
The contemporary parallels are clear, although the take home is nuanced. Vigilance is vital when reaction pulls on its jackboots, but the gulf between a handful of thugs and the horrors of interwar fascism is mercifully wide. Recognising the difference is a genuine challenge.
The play’s most resonant line, is the reported nostrum of Svevo’s wife. “When everyone is being foolish, it can be foolish to act sensibly”. That is surely a clarion call to those who might allow reaction to flourish in the benign glare of relativism? Reassuringly, such a thought-provoking performance as this is at least a modest bulwark against that possibility.
Review of TARO, at the Brockley Jack Theatre 19 January – 16 February 2019
The defining moment of darkroom photo processing occurs in the tray of developer. In to this pungent liquid slides a white sheet of paper revealing no sign of infused light, or the anticipatory anxiety that wills its transformation. Seconds tick by before shapes and grayscale emerge. Form and detail often make an uncertain start, but eventually a semblance of that originally spied through the camera’s viewfinder appears in sharp relief.
The play tells the story of Robert Capa, the arguable father of photojournalism – or more precisely the Jewish exile couple who invented ‘American photojournalist Robert Capa’ as a disguise from behind which they could achieve better rates for both their work.
The cast of eight conjure the story Gerda Taro and her relationship with Endre Friedmann through fragmentary scenes, choreography and conceit. Enjoyable as these are, I spent a good portion of the 95 minute performance wondering if this dancing collage of grey and white, dreamy episodes and moments of fantasy could possibly coalesce. But as the conclusion approached, the subtle beauty and power of the whole revealed itself in a distilled moment to equal those for which Capa himself become so famous.
Historical narrative supplies the play’s furniture, but its theme is identity and its capacity to be at once self-determined and rooted in our backgrounds. Capa, of course, was a figment from the outset, but there were plenty more. Neither Taro or Friedmann were observant Jews, yet heritage, and anti-semitism shaped their imaginations. And though they played instrumental roles in creating modern photojournalism with its apparently shocking veracity, both knew well how sometimes deceit is necessary to tell a powerful truth.
Issues of dispossession, identity and representation animate contemporary life every bit as much they did in the middle of the twentieth century. If TARO has a shortcoming it is that this continuum is not clearly signalled. That does not detract from the quality of this work, however, nor of the energetic and eminently capable cast.
Today, of course, few darkrooms remain, and the revolutionary impact of lone photographers framing our world view is subsumed by a tsunami of phone-captured snaps. A reminder of the human gaze behind every recorded image, however, is all the more impactful for focusing on a time when a single exposure could change the world.
How such an obscure track made it on to prime-time telly 39 years after I first heard it, I can’t imagine. Sometime around the election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979, three friends and I happened, unprepared, upon The Negatives. Their set was basic, ram-a-lam-a rock of a kind familiar from the ’77 punk explosion, but yet to be rebranded as ‘Oi’. Several factors distinguished the band. They were incredibly tight and powerful with a lead singer, Dave Wilcox, whose wailing sneer and crazed delivery merited comparison with John Lydon. Just as important was their travelling band of fans. They were a melange of day-glo, studded leather, rip-shirted, glue-sodden, spike-haired, po-going, puking punks, united by Doc Martins, bondage and Special Brew. They dragged us into their midst for 90 minutes of glorious rucking as the band thrashed their instruments. Our tribe had claimed us. For the rest of that year, we saw The Negatives whenever we could. We may not have seen their every performance, but we came close. The only time I recall them disappointing was in a support slot for Stiff Little Fingers. The Negatives electrified the upstairs room of any pub, but struggled on the Queens Hall’s big stage. When the band split in January 1980 my friends and I were bereft. The guitarist, bass player and drummer went on to form the Mysterious Footsteps – musically more interesting, but less compelling. Dave Wilcox recruited a true-to-punk but musically inept backing band in front of which his increasingly wasted frame appeared somehow lost. The tight-knit scene dispersed. ‘We’re From Bradford’ was always a favourite in live sets. In its recent tv outing it animates the raucous wake of a right-wing thug. Politically and culturally that setting was a travesty. A lot of the Negatives gigs, possibly most, were Rock Against Racism benefits. The gang of fans were racially mixed and included women and men. Had they classified themselves politically, many would have identified as anarchists (several, myself included, would later turn up as early stalwarts of the 1-in-12 Club). What really characterised them, though, was openness and tolerance. Chanting ‘We’re From Bradford’ to a three-chord thrash – in the days before the Iranian revolution's fallout, before Ray Honeyford’s obnoxious fame, before Satanic Verses – was an ecstatic statement that locality and common interest defined us more than anything else. It was a moment in time.
Article first appeared in Amateur Photographer 8 April 2017
WITH A COUPLE OF HOURS between meetings one afternoon last summer, I walked the perimeter of BMW's Oxford plant. My hope was to take a photograph that somehow conveyed the idea of a contemporary car factory.
This article first appeared in Amateur Photographer in December 2017
WHEN MY BROTHER DIED unexpectedly at the age of 40, my family was distraught. Like others struck by grief, we flapped around searching for ways to celebrate a life cut short.