Based on the novel by Colin MacInnes, adapted by Roy Williams, director Liam Steel, music by Soweto Kinch, design Lizzie Cachan, lighting design Guy Hoare, sound design Nick Manning, video design Matt Spencer, fight direction Tim Klotz, photography Simon Kane, producer Kate McGrath
Micah Balfour – Mr Cool
James Clyde – Henley, Mickey P, Admiral Drove
Richard Frame – Dean Swift, Ed the Ted, Verne
Darren Hart – Marcus
Joanne Matthews – Suze
Sid Mitchell – Photo Boy
Tosin Olomowewe – Carl, African student
Rachel Sanders – Big Jill, Mum
David Sibley – Dad, Vendice
Tom Stuart – Wiz, Hoplite
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 9 May, 2007
Venue: Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London
Colin MacInnes was born in London in 1914 to professional singer James McInnes (sic) and popular novelist Angela Thirkell. When his parents divorced three years later he moved to Australia with his mother and stepfather, and stayed there till 1929. After a business career in Brussels he moved back to London to study painting and drawing. He was in the Army during World War II, after which he worked for BBC Radio until the mid-1950s. Leaving the Corporation to go freelance as a writer, he produced a dozen novels, of which his London trilogy is probably the most famous: “City of Spades” in 1957, “Absolute Beginners” in 1959, and “Mr Love and Justice” in 1960.
“Absolute beginners” was the most controversial as it dealt with the effects of the Notting Hill race riots. It became a cult best-seller and nearly fifty years later it is still a powerful piece of writing. It was even the inspiration for songs by Paul Weller and David Bowie. Although not perfect, the Lyric Theatre adaptation by Roy Williams actually works very well as a piece of theatre, far better in fact that when it was filmed in 1986.
A novel can cope with a huge panoply of characters, perhaps better than a play, but Roy Williams has used most of them with the cast of ten doubling up with elegant ease. The leading character, a white male teenager, is known as Photo Boy, and MacInnes views the world of pop culture and the effects of mass immigration on West London through his eyes, those of a photographer who is recording the social scene as it changes before him.
The mid-1950s were a time of upheaval in the arts, with the new realism in theatre, film and to some extent popular music, although much use is made of Laurie London’s number one 1958 hit “He’s got the whole world in his hands” rather than any other more aggressive rock music of the time. The play unfolds to a background of jazz music by alto saxophonist Soweto Kinch who became a full-time musician after leaving Oxford and being invited to join Tomorrow’s Warriors, Gary Crosby’s development programme to nurture young jazz talents. The music brings coolness to the proceedings that fits well with the themes and the times in which the piece is set.
Racism is in the air and, although Photo Boy has no hidden personal agenda, there are certain elements outside his edge of show-business milieu that are looking for trouble. It’s the Teddy Boys versus the rest, but Photo Boy carries on snapping, recording his almost-famous friends from every walk of life, and they include blacks, whites, gays, straights, druggies, drinkers, hookers: all human life is there in one seething melting pot that eventually erupts into mindless violence as it did in Notting Hill in 1958. The trouble is that Photo Boy is mad for his girlfriend Suze, but she fancies a more lucrative life. She also has a black boyfriend, Mr Cool, but is contemplating a sexless marriage to an older man, a gay fashion designer, unless Photo Boy can come up with £500. The book and the play chart the progress of this relationship and why it finally founders.
The adaptation takes the piece though short sharp scenes that make good use of a very ingenious set comprising boxes that open into rooms, different levels and staircases that give the piece a sort of cartoon strip feeling that actually works in its favour. The performances are uniformly good but mention should be made of Sid Mitchell as Photo Boy who by sheer force of personality binds the whole thing together. Joanne Matthews is the difficult girlfriend Suze, Rachel Sanders an unsympathetic slag of a mum (and she also plays a lesbian madam to hilarious effect) but really the whole cast work hard as an ensemble bringing a good deal of entertainment along with a message that is still relevant today and that, with some skilled fight arranging, literally hits home with a real punch.
- Absolute beginners is at the Lyric Hammersmith, King Street, London W6, April 26-May 26 (including matinees on Saturdays)
- Telephone 08700 500 511
- Lyric Hammersmith