Tinder sticks

I’ve never taken full advantage of the cultural opportunities offered by living in London: I really should go and see more stand-up comedy, and also more theatre. Happily I was able to take a first step this afternoon: with Shepherd’s Bush a ten-minute bus ride from where I live, I had no excuses at all not to catch Tinderbox at the Bush Theatre. And while convenience was part of the reason for going, another was that it stars the fabulous Sheridan Smith.

In fact, I didn’t clock from the publicity that it also stars Bryan Dick, a familiar face from Blackpool, Twenty Thousand Stars Under the Sky and sterling turns in many other places, not least Shameless and those rather annoying Virgin Airlines adverts. Added to these two great young acting talents (I’m increasingly making a point of describing people slightly older than me as “young” while it’s still feasible) was Jamie Foreman, who did his best with the ill-considered role of Eddie Connolly in arguably Doctor Who’s weakest episode since its revival, The Idiot’s Lantern.

Connolly is arguably a bit typecast, as here too he plays a fearsome and misguided paterfamilias: as global warming floods England in a not-too-distant future, and after the 2012 Stratford bombings, Saul Everard has moved his London butcher’s shop to Bradford. It is the Tinderbox of the title, as he rules his empire like a tyrant, which his wife Vanessa (Smith) either tolerates or is contained by. Perchik (Bryan Dick) intrudes into this set-up, finding himself in Bradford without papers, and half-imprisoned, half-sheltered by Saul.

The play poses the question of which of the two – the monstrous Saul or the more sympathetic Perchik – will prevail, and which Vanessa will ultimately side with. While this plays out, Saul needs to procure meat to keep his business going, and visitors to the shop have a nasty habit of falling into the cement mixer out the back…

It’s a tense couple of hours, much of this coming from Saul, who is a horrifying creation, brilliantly realised by Foreman; even when he is not on-stage, the prospect of his return dominates proceedings. Equally, Dick and Smith are compelling, as their characters by turn seem to warm to Saul and turn on him by picking apart his old-fashioned ideas of empire. Saul’s expounding of his ideas and the reactions of Perchik and Vanessa provide an opportunity for some acutely funny dialogue.

The play is rich in themes: the title is not the glib metaphor it seems to be at first, as the concept of the shop as a tinderbox is returned to
throughout the piece, ultimately to devastating effect. The theme of empire is less critical to the plot, but its inclusion is thoughtful; above all, by the end Saul seems partially vindicated in his approach to running his own little empire…

Tinderbox runs until May 24th and I’d thoroughly recommend you get along and sample it while you have the chance.

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