Issue 260 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

A land fit for heroes

Mike Gonzalez on why the British ruling class like nothing better than a complete failure

Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, spent more than eight months trapped in ice
Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, spent more than eight months trapped in ice

Across a vast white expanse a single figure appears as a dot on the horizon. As the man comes closer, you notice he is puffing at a pipe, while the other hand is buried deep in the pocket of his coat. Hours later he stands in front of you. Removing the pipe from his white-flecked mouth, he speaks: 'Hello, old chap; don't happen to know the latest Test score at the Oval do you?'

We can assume that this brave loner has tried and failed to get to the North Pole/South Pole/climb Everest/walk to the moon or some such. But we can be sure he's British because the British ruling class has an enormous talent, and admiration, for failure. Its heroes either nearly make it, but not quite, or are unfairly outsmarted by some bloody foreigner who either cheated or was just lucky! Poor Scott, who insisted on doing things the old way, was outwitted by Amundsen, a Norwegian who used new technology for his sleds and made it to the South Pole first.

Now Shackleton--another noble failure--has re-emerged from the icy mist of oblivion to become this year's hero. Kenneth Branagh recreated this cheerful, stoical chap so devoted to his men that he dragged them across the great ice and got them home safe and sound. Why, he even selflessly rigged the matchstick draw so that the other fellows got the fur sleeping bags and the big chunks of seal steak. A couple of days later, though, a less well publicised documentary told a slightly different story.

When they returned to Britain, all 23 members of this extraordinary expedition were offered the prestigious Polar Medal. Shackleton vetoed the award to three men. One of them, 'Chippy' McNish the carpenter, was a stroppy Scot who had challenged Shackleton's authority and his strategy for survival. Of course, Chippy built the boat that got them across 800 miles of ferocious seas to South Georgia and eventual survival. But the Boss, as they called him, never forgot--and made sure he had the last laugh.

Even at the extremes--on the Antarctic ice or the peak of Everest--the British class system still functions. Everyone eats the same blubber stew and huddles together in minuscule tents--yet the invisible barriers persist, even when blinkered conservatism and stubborn bigotry lead directly to a terrible death, as they did with Scott.

And the same prejudices shape our definition of what we mean by heroes. What is it we are asked to celebrate in Shackleton and Scott? It isn't their success--since both enterprises failed. Instead it is the way their experiences confirm the division of the world into 'natural leaders' and 'natural followers'. When Shackleton and McNish had their spat on the ice, it ended when the boss reminded the prole that he was still paying his wages. Silence followed--the proper order was restored. The difference was that the other 22, who struggled across the ice for 17 months, were doing it for the money--so their strength and courage somehow didn't count. The 'leaders' were in it for the glory--or to put it another way, they had private incomes. They were 'amateurs'. The British love amateurs, enthusiasts who launch themselves into foolhardy activities for the hell of it, untainted by the pursuit of prizes or personal gain.

Our contempt for people like Amundsen is because they were professionals, trained and prepared. They lacked that confidence that could reassure them that the British ruling class would survive by right, while any number of foreign servants might fall by the wayside. When US Admiral Peary 'conquered' the North Pole (not counting, of course, the generations of Scandinavian Arctic explorers who had travelled the area already) he was given the usual hero's welcome in the US when he returned. It took another 80 years before anyone mentioned his black companion, vastly more experienced than the admiral, who actually got there first!

This month a new film about Muhammad Ali will hit British cinema screens. It will be an opportunity to acknowledge a different kind of hero, a working class hero, though as far as I know, Ali never organised a failed expedition to Antarctica. The difference between Ali and Shackleton? Perhaps it was that Ali's life was a battle against bigotry, racism and the US ruling class; perhaps because millions can identify with Ali and gain from his successes some sense that he is like us, that his life is like real lives that we know. In the end, the heroes of our side stand for many others. They are not different but recognisably one of us. Every class has its own heroes. We should be wary of admiring the qualities that go to make only better rulers--stubbornness, arrogance and a tendency to present failure as success.

So here's a toast to Chippy McNish!


Film

JAB IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

Ali
Dir: Michael Mann


Ali offering Floyd Patterson('the rabbit') some food in 1965
Ali offering Floyd Patterson('the rabbit') some food in 1965

Pity the makers of Ali, the long gestated $105 million Hollywood biopic starring Will Smith. The picture was in the can well before 11 September, and one can imagine the growing discomfort of studio executives as they wondered how to market this tale of a black American who converts to Islam and then refuses to serve his country in a time of war. In the US the film has already proved a box office disappointment, overshadowed by Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down.

Michael Mann's film meticulously recreates major episodes from Ali's heyday--the glorious, controversy-infused years from his upset victory over Sonny Liston in 1964 to his incomparable comeback in Kinshasa against George Foreman in 1974. The care that has been lavished on sets and locations, the attention to period detail, and the rich array of sights and sounds are a constant pleasure, but too often they are the only pleasure. Despite (or because of) the presence of five writers on the screen credits, the film is under-written, as is so much Hollywood product these days.

A number of the smaller parts--Jeffrey Wright as Ali's loyal friend Howard Bingham, Ron Silver as his trainer Angelo Dundee, Mykelti Williams as Don King, David Elliott as Sam Cook, as well as Jada Pinkett Smith, Nona Gaye and Michael Michele as Ali's first three wives--are given weight more by the charisma of the performers than any dramatic significance crafted by the film makers. Jamie Foxx's Bundini Brown (the self styled black Jewish alcoholic who coinedė 'Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee') is given more room to breathe, to poignant effect. More dialogue, and less of Ali/Smith staring soulfully at his surroundings, would have been welcome.

The film unequivocally celebrates Ali's defiance of American racism and the Vietnam War, but does little to explain either. I wonder what young people with little knowledge of the period will make of it all. There's a brief scene in which Ali's lawyer, Chauncey Eskridge (another underdeveloped cameo, this time from the excellent Joe Morton), is talking to his client from a hotel telephone. We hear a shot and glimpse a dead man lying on a balcony. For some of us it is obvious that the place is Memphis, the year 1968, and the dead man Martin Luther King. But for many others it will be merely one of a flurry of sometimes arresting but usually uncontextualised images.

Despite some juggling of the sequence of events, Ali is largely faithful to facts. However, it performs a telling sleight of hand when it comes to the detail of Malcolm X's break with the Nation of Islam. In the film, Malcolm (adroitly played by Mario Van Peebles) says that Elijah Muhammad has suspended him because of his desire to support the civil rights movement in the wake of the murder of four black children at a Birmingham, Alabama, church. In fact Malcolm was suspended because he chose to place the traumatic assassination of John F Kennedy in the context of US intervention in Congo and Vietnam, and described it, to the shock of nearly everyone in the country at the time, as a case of 'the chickens coming home to roost'. Had the statement been included in the film, after 11 September it probably would have wound up on the cutting room floor. Received wisdom would have it that the way to popularise a political subject like Ali is to focus on the personal drama and keep the arguments in the background. But in this case, at least, the received wisdom is wrong.

The best way to have led inexperienced viewers into the political terrain would have been to let Ali speak for himself, as he did with such verve, wit, intelligence and uncompromising commitment in the 1960s. It's telling that some of the liveliest scenes are those in which Smith carries off a note perfect reproduction of Ali's recorded performances in press conferences and TV interviews. These are funny, biting, surreal, political and personal, and they were the only moments in the film to raise a laugh among the audience. It's hard to improve on an original like Ali. Apart from these scenes, and when he is doing his stuff (reasonably convincingly) in the ring, Smith's approach to the role is honourable but a little too solemn. The impish mischief that energised Ali's years hardly appears, and the anger is mostly bottled up. So the reluctance to engage with ideas, and perhaps a fear of hard edged politics, ends up undermining the audience-engaging qualities Mann and his writers were seeking.

For a clear and intensely dramatic explanation of what Ali meant in his early years, it will be hard to beat the few minutes of Malcolm X talking direct to camera in the William Klein documentary The Greatest, now being rereleased. Ali addicts, who relish any footage of the man in his prime doing almost anything, will feel compelled to see the film, but it's an amorphous, unkempt assemblage, and any unifying theme has to be supplied by the viewer. In Ali and The Greatest, the 'Rumble in the Jungle', when Ali reclaimed the title that had been taken from him because of his political convictions, provides an irresistible climax. In both films, as in When We Were Kings, the moment when Ali, having soaked up round after round of brutal punishment, dumps Foreman on the mat retains the power to make the hair on your neck bristle. No matter how many times I see it, in how many forms, it still makes me want to leap up and join in the jubilant celebrations that followed in the stadium, on the streets of Kinshasa and around the world.
Mike Marqusee

Mike Marqusee is the author of Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, published by Verso.


DETECTING THE DIVIDE

Gosford Park
Dir: Robert Altman


In a big country mansion in 1932 a rich family and their friends gather, waited on hand and foot by an army of servants. At midnight a murder is committed. Gosford Park has all the hallmarks of an Agatha Christie whodunit. But anyone expecting the usual Agatha Christie fare, with its gentlemanly upper class heroes, comic book villains and racist stereotypes, will be sorely disappointed. This is a whodunit told from the servants' point of view.

The British period setting of the film is a departure for US director Robert Altman, whose films such as Nashville, The Player and Short Cuts have all been set in the US. But Altman doesn't offer a tourist's nostalgic view of the British aristocracy. Instead he cleverly subverts the traditional whodunit scenario to expose class inequalities in the 1930s.

From the moment the film begins, the contrast between the idle rich and the servants who wait on them is in the foreground of the film. The film opens as a maid, Mary, gets soaked to the skin in a downpour, while her cosseted mistress, the Countess of Trentham, is ushered under cover to a waiting car. It is through the details of everyday life that we see the huge gulf between upstairs and downstairs, and the hundred and one ritual humiliations that the servants are put through as they see to every whim of their rich employers. So the servants are never called by their real names, but by the surnames of their employers. The Countess of Trentham (brilliantly played by Maggie Smith) refers to how she is 'breaking in' her new maid.

Robert Altman made it policy while shooting to only film the rich upstairs if there was a servant present. The rich are shown lazing around, languidly lying on sofas, waiting for their every need to be met, while the servants hover in the background ready to jump to attention. In contrast, downstairs is a hive of activity, with servants rushing about, never getting a break in the military-style operation which is involved in meeting the whims of upstairs.

Gosford Park represents a world which will soon be changed completely by the turmoil of the 1930s and the Second World War. The days of mansion houses staffed by a huge army of servants are numbered. This sense of class division and society in flux comes across brilliantly in the film. The ruling class is shown not only despising the servants but also each other. So the owner of Gosford Park, Sir William McCordle (played by Michael Gambon), is hated by members of the old aristocracy because he represents new money and got his title from his wife. But neither does the film idealise the world of the servants downstairs, which is shown as having a strict hierarchy, reflecting the divisions imposed from above.

In some ways the whodunit element seems almost incidental to the film. Altman said he wanted to make not so much a whodunit but rather a 'that it was done', and that the murder was a device to keep all the characters in one place. But that doesn't make the film any less compelling to watch. It has an all-star cast of British actors and, like many previous Altman films, a vast array of characters. But the acting is so good that even the most minor characters get to tell their story through looks and gestures. So one of most moving moments in the film is when the upright butler of the house drinks himself stupid because he is frightened he will be exposed for being a conscientious objector during the First World War.

If you want to be kept on the edge of your seat, guessing who did the murder, then this might not be the film for you. But as a vivid, funny and enjoyable portrayal of class inequalities and injustices, Gosford Park is an excellent film.
Hazel Croft

Gosford Park: it was the arsitocracy that dunnit
Gosford Park: it was the arsitocracy that dunnit

FRIENDSHIP TURNS TO ASHES

Last Orders
Dir: Fred Schepisi


Calling last orders
Calling last orders

At first sight you may question the appeal of a film about the lives of a rather unrepresentative group of friends--an undertaker, a car salesman, a butcher and a market trader, all of whom are white. Nonetheless, this is a warm and witty film with great characters and wonderful acting. It also has interesting things to say about familiar aspects of human relationships such as friendship, loyalty and betrayal, loss and grief, the end of innocence during the war, and the new aspirations of the postwar generation.

Based on a novel by Graham Swift and set largely in the late 1980s, it examines the bittersweet lives of a close group of friends in south London following the death of their friend Jack (played by Michael Caine). Jack's last orders, discussed over a pint in the Coach and Horses, are for his ashes to be scattered over the sea in Margate, where he and his wife Amy (played by Helen Mirren) spent their honeymoon. However, Jack's apparently simple request brings to the surface tensions among the friends, and reveals truths about each of them and Jack's marriage.

Even in death Jack has a palpable presence on the journey to Margate and an unsettling effect on the four men. He is unceremoniously carted around in a plastic urn inside a carrier bag which nervously changes hands between them. The strength of the film is how each character is allowed a slice of the narrative. It is less successful in its use of flashbacks, although these do develop a sense of the characters' history.

Jack's wife Amy has refused to scatter his ashes because she is bitter that he rejected their daughter, who has a severe learning disability. She has visited her at a residential home for 30 years without Jack, although her daughter doesn't recognise her. The idyllic moment before the war when she and Jack first met picking hops in Kent is contrasted with her lonely life in London since. Her only solace has been in a brief affair with Jack's best friend, Ray.

Ray, known as 'Lucky' because of his success at picking racing winners, is played by Bob Hoskins. Jack has entrusted him with winning enough money so he can sell up shop and move to Margate with Amy, in the hope it will save their marriage. However, he is unaware of Ray's affair with her. Ray can identify with Amy's loneliness since his marriage ended and his daughter emigrated.

Jack and Amy's son Vince (played by Ray Winstone) is an orphan from the Blitz. He personifies a new generation who wants to make his own life. He has a ponytail and sets up his own business rather than join his father's butchers. To Jack he is a deserter. Vic (played by Tom Courtenay) is an undertaker. His job, which he loves, is giving dignity to the dead. However, in witnessing Amy's affair he is complicit in her betrayal of Jack. Lenny (powerfully played by David Hemmings) is bitter at the past, the 'fucking navy' and 'tourists'. He drinks heavily and constantly winds up Vince for his lack of respect towards Jack, ending in a pathetic brawl in a field.

This is certainly not the most representative bunch of people, especially considering the diverse make-up of south London in the 1980s. But as an exploration of people's secret desires it is an often beautiful film. It also poses universal questions--who will remember us, and how? What are the consequences of our actions for other people? As Jack says before he dies, 'ending is easy--carrying on is hard.'
Alasdair Paterson


TRUTH MASSACRED

Black Hawk Down
Dir: Ridley Scott


The US intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s was called 'Operation Restore Hope'. It was part of an ongoing UN mission in the country that brought despair, not hope. When the UN was forced to flee in 1995 Somalia was in tatters--the warlord General Aideed's popularity had risen for resisting foreign intervention, an unknown number of Somalis had been killed (perhaps several thousand), and the country was further plunged into warring chaos that would last for years.

The film Black Hawk Down is based on the book written by journalist Mark Bowden. It concentrates on the battle in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, on 3 October, when US troops attempted to arrest two of General Aideed's lieutenants. However, the operation ended in disaster--two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, and in the ensuing battle 18 Americans and between 500 and 1,000 Somalis were killed. The film follows the experiences of a number of American soldiers involved in the massacre. The first scene shows Somali gunmen killing civilians while US forces watch, frustrated that they are unable to intervene because they are paralysed by the UN's rules of engagement. The film claims that US forces were there to ensure humanitarian aid could be distributed across the country, and to 'restore order and stability' to the region. This is utter rubbish--the US had come to fight.

Most of the film is one long and violent battle scene. It shows American forces trapped in the city, desperately fighting their way out. The Somalis, 'skinnies' as the US forces call them, are only objects to be killed. They are either a marauding mob brandishing weapons or a frenzied crowd mercilessly cheering on the militias who are attacking US soldiers. The only Somali we hear tells us 'There will always be killing, this is how things are in our world.' The film celebrates the camaraderie of the US soldiers, who we see fighting heroically to ensure, as the publicity for the film states, that they 'leave no man behind'. The Somalis resemble drugged zombies high on war and murder. The only note of criticism is reserved for the White House for not being sufficiently behind 'our boys'.

The film is a racist carnival that dehumanises Somalis. It does not show the routine atrocities and killings perpetrated by the US forces--on the contrary, it concentrates solely on the humanity of the occupying soldiers. When an injured pilot runs out of ammunition he pulls out a photo of his wife, which we see him trying to hold on to as he is beaten to death by a homicidal mob. One of the final scenes in the film shows American troops retreating from the city on 4 October. Lining their retreat are crowds of ordinary people cheering and clapping. This is meant to show the ruthlessness of the Somalis, but the truth is that their resistance and sacrifice managed to force a superpower to withdraw. As the titles come up there is a full list of the Americans killed, but not a single Somali is remembered.

The context of the film is clearly the aftermath of 11 September. The producer was determined to capitalise on the 'war fever', and insisted that it was released three months ahead of time. When Ridley Scott, who directed the film, was asked if he made propaganda he replied that he didn't, but he said he would be pleased if the film helped the country. Do not be mistaken--the film is propaganda for Bush's wars.
Leo Zeilig


Exhibition

ALL POWER TO THE IMAGINATION

Paris, Capital of the Arts 1900-1968
Royal Academy of Arts, London


Standing Woman

Art in the 20th century is too often made to seem obscure and difficult, but this exhibition is about as accessible and exciting as it gets. Partly that's because it is linked to the development of a great city, so there's an inbuilt stress on history in the exhibition. But it also seems that the art industry has sensed growing interest in radical, even anti-capitalist, ideas. Paris is presented as a centre of subversion as well as culture.

The selection of works is outstanding. For much of the period 1900-68 Paris really was the home of key artistic experiments. There are breakthrough pieces of Cubism, Abstraction, Surrealism and 1960s Action art. The background material in the exhibition gives useful hints of what was behind this artistic ferment. It links Surrealist paintings with premonitions of the horror of Holocaust and war, for example, and it outlines the stresses in French society that spawned radical art in the 1960s. But what is so remarkable is the way so many of these paintings speak for themselves.

Composition with Hand and Hats
Composition with Hand and Hats

Early on in the exhibition Chagall's 'City from the Window' and Delauney's 'Eiffel Tower' convey the vertigo induced by a city being transformed by new technology at breakneck speed. Leger's 'Composition with Hand and Hats' clinically records how mass production not only shapes the world we live in but invades our dreamworlds as well.

Room five tries to recreate a gallery of the 1920s. It is so packed full of vibrant abstracts and Dada objects that it is almost overwhelming. Elegant bronze statues and Mondrian 'jazz' paintings suggest that Modernism had become chic. But at the same time some of the cool, abstract designs are more utopian schemes than decoration. Leger, who was a committed socialist, used abstraction to suggest ways to make a human landscape out of the modern industrialised city.

In the 1950s and 1960s Op Art took a more detached and playful attitude to the world of commodities. But the last two rooms are a riot. In the mid-1960s, Christo wrapped desirable objects like motor scooters and film stars in plastic sheeting to suggest that consumer paradise could never be attained. Niki de Saint Phalie made a gold altarpiece covered with guns and bombs, and a crazy mannequin of Krushchev and Kennedy joined at the hip in an orgy of mutual violence.

The entrance price of £9 is a grim reminder that even our hopes, dreams and nightmares are sold back to us in this world. But take your student card, if you have one and let the French fire your imagination.
Chris Nineham


Interview

ROYAL RESULTS IN STRATFORD


Joan Littlewood outside the Theatre Royal, Stratford in the 1950s
Joan Littlewood outside the Theatre Royal, Stratford in the 1950s

Joan Littlewood's Theatre Royal in Stratford, east London, revolutionised British theatre with shows such as Oh What a Lovely War, The Hostage and A Taste of Honey. Peter Gee spoke to the theatre's director, Philip Headley, about continuing the battle to make theatre relevant and vital to working people's lives.

In what way has Joan Littlewood's legacy affected your approach in attracting a working class audience to your theatre?
She was totally concerned with social inclusion, except the term hadn't been invented then. She always spoke of the continuous loop between theatre and the community. We draw on ideas, experiences and talents from the community, and create shows and present them back to the community. As the demography of the local community changes, so must the shows presented on stage.

What barriers exist that stop people coming to theatre?
Price is of course important. The Theatre Royal is in Newham, which is usually named in any survey as one of the three most deprived boroughs in the country, with more than half its residents eligible for some form of state benefit.

I'm proud that over half our audience come in for £3 if they are eligible for that concessionary price. Also, they can book the best seats available at the time of booking. This guarantees an audience mixed in age, race and class in all parts of the theatre, instead of poorer audience members being confined to the gallery.

If we charged the same price for concession tickets as other comparable regional theatres in London then we would earn an extra £250,000 a year at the box office. That means sacrifice. It is very tempting to put up prices to pay our staff and artists decently, and to be able to put on more ambitious shows . But it is a principle I stick by. I feel it is an issue I would resign over.

It is not just price that is a barrier. We examine everything that we do. We try very hard not to make our posters too arty, which would only confirm the belief that theatre is elitist. We have a community relations office, which most theatres do not have, to reach out into the local community. Also we look at the way our staff talk to our customers--avoiding jargon which may be offputting to those who haven't been to the theatre before.

Musicals play an important role in your new season. Tell us about them and your reasons for putting them on.
Many in the theatrical establishment do not think that rap, hip-hop, bhangra, or house and garage music have a place in musical theatre. I am convinced that the wonderful fusion of music from different racial backgrounds that is produced in London and other major cities could bring a lot to theatre and re-energise it.

The programme of work includes three collaborations with black companies. One is a new company which we helped to establish. The two other black companies are restaging musicals they have performed before. Another exciting role model will be a young, talented Asian composer, Niraj Chag, who is writing his first theatre music for a staging of an Indian classical film. Niraj is a graduate of the first of our three month long musical theatre workshops.

Finally, we have been given permission by the estate of Rodgers and Hart to musically update The Boys From Syracuse. No other major composer or their estate has ever given permission to update their work with rap or hip-hop before.


Theatre

STARK EXPOSURE

The Island
by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona
Soho Theatre, London


The Island is Robben Island, South Africa's high security prison for black opponents during the apartheid era. It was notorious for its harsh conditions and the brutal treatment of political prisoners.

John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who co-wrote the play with Athol Fugard in 1973, perform the play. In the restaging of The Island, Kani and Ntshona recreate the claustrophobia, dependence and comradeship of two men who have shared a cell for almost three years. The sparse set, consisting of a bucket of water for both washing and drinking, two mats and two blankets, aptly portrays the bleakness of their situation.

John chooses to perform a scene from Antigone, a Greek tragedy, as the Saturday show for prisoners and warders. The rehearsals for this performance with Winston reveal the personal dynamics of their relationship, which are at once comic and deeply moving. When Winston refuses to learn the plot of Antigone after a hard day's digging, John finally demands that he do it for the leaders of the struggle.

The choice of Antigone and its performance act as a vehicle for exposing the moral and political bankruptcy of the South African state and its legal system. The performance of John Kani and Winston Ntshona is mesmerising, taking you through the highs and lows of their relationship as prisoners. The performance of Antigone is a powerful polemic delivered with great dignity by Winston as Antigone.

Although The Island reflects a reality of South Africa at a particular time, it also reflects universal realities in all ages--wherever one group oppresses another. The Island is a powerful reminder of the ability of human beings to use their imagination even in the most brutal circumstances to ridicule and expose the injustices of their oppressors. A remarkable and highly recommended play.
Moyra Samuels


TOYS ARE NOT FOR USE

The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter
Old Vic, London


The thing is not to play
The thing is not to play

'That summer she was 15, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and bone. 'Angela Carter's 1967 novel opens with the start of the painful and enchanting journey of adolescent self discovery. Brimming with intense symbolism, the dynamic theatre company Shared Experience, with their mix of physical theatre and narration, accomplish a compelling adaptation.

Initially we find Melanie in comfortable countryside surroundings with her younger brother and toddler sister. She fantasises about growing up with trepidation, wishing she was 40 with the knowledge of what her life would hold. She dreams of falling in love, of marriage, and all this framed by her childhood innocence. One night the fantasy goes one step further, as Melanie tries on her mother's wedding dress and steps out into the garden. Finding herself locked out, she climbs the apple tree back to her bedroom, ruining the precious dress in the process.

Within the next hour both her parents are killed in a plane crash. Laden with guilt, Melanie is sent with her siblings to stay with her domineering Uncle Phillip in south London. He owns a toyshop but hates children. Also living in the 'madhouse' are Margaret, Phillip's wife, who hasn't spoken since they married, and her two brothers, Finn and Frankie.

Melanie is thrust into an unfamiliar family full of secrets, where Uncle Phillip pulls the strings, creating a tyrannical hold over the household. The magic of Phillip's toys is forbidden to the children who, in his view, should be seen and not heard, just like women. The magic is only allowed under Phillip's control in his macabre puppet shows, in which Melanie is forced to take part. Her budding sexual awareness is manipulated by Phillip and noticed by him, and he spies on her through a peephole between their bedrooms.

Carter's story is filled with mythical Old Testament references--the forbidden fruit of the garden of Eden, the Ark and its destruction--leaving Finn and Melanie, her childhood dissolved, facing creation anew.

The Magic Toyshop is well suited to the company, who carry this adaptation through on many levels. Hannah Watkins is superb, capturing both the self assurance and the vulnerability of Melanie's adolescence. Her narration was carried within every facial expression as much as through the words themselves. Shared Experience achieve a compelling and believable piece with subtlety and vitality. Highly recommended.
Beccy Reese


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