Market Boy is the latest production in the Travelex £10 Season in the NT Olivier and should prove popular with a local London audience, especially one with Essex connections. In writing to the requirements of the large stage, author David Eldridge has provided a modern Bartholomew Fair, an affectionate visitation of his own youth in Romford market during the 1980s, and a rites-of-passage parable of withdrawn new lad on the block Boy (Danny Worters) finding his voice and losing his cherry.
Although the tempo sags a little in the second half as the boom years give way to bust and Thatcher (Nicola Blackwell in a tremendous lacquered wig and Spitting Image face mask) bids farewell to Downing Street (metaphorically twin-towned with Romford), Eldridge and his director Rufus Norris (with whom he last collaborated on Festen) serve up a wonderful parade of market life and lore.
The show starts with a trader’s van bursting through a stage-wide poster, “Labour Isn’t Working”, and ends with a thoroughly initiated Boy jumping through another one, the “Hello Boys” ad for Wonderbra. In between, Paul Arditti’s sound design bathes the action in chart hits of the Eighties and patriotic songs. Boy is apprenticed to a shoe stall, and the opening 20 minutes is an immensely funny fashion show of the regulars, compered by Gary McDonald’s wise-cracking, lecherous Trader: mother and daughter in matching pink leather and platinum blonde wigs; the foul-mouthed old woman in surgical stockings and a walking frame; a thieving gypsy, a contemptuous transvestite; and the Most Beautiful Woman in Romford, whom Jemma Walker presents as a sharp-tongued, skimpily clad opportunist riding the wave of the “greed is good” society.
You could argue that too many characters are left undeveloped, but even Ben Jonson is guilty on that score. Eldridge, whose previous plays are smaller in scale and quieter in tone, is taking his main subject – the relatively prosperous, lower middle-class overspill from the old East End into the new settlements of Romford, Ilford, Seven Kings and Chadwell Heath in the 1930s –and painting on a broader, more ambitious canvas.
These outposts have changed again dramatically since the 1980s, but Eldridge captures something of the mood and, yes, suburban poetry, of that time with unerring accuracy. Introducing a ferocious market inspector (Paul Moriarty), he cleverly weaves in some local history, with a pair of Roman legionnaires and one of Romford’s famous modern sons, snooker champion Steve Davis (John Marquez), belying his “boring” image with a break-dancing, cue-twirling routine.
A sense of the new Tory heartland is conveyed in the vociferous rejection of a Labour Party candidate, and Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven, a major television drama series of the day, is evoked when Boy discovers Mum (Claire Rushbrook) in flagrante in the trader’s van. Katrina Lindsay’s gorgeous design of mobile market stalls and a huge iron gantry allows for some breathtaking stage compositions and choreography (by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly).
There are beautiful cameo performances from Ruth Sheen as a fruitseller, Sophie Stanton as a butch fish woman and Jonathan Cullen as the uncompromising meat man. I only wish the dreadful microphoning in the Olivier was either ditched altogether or improved. Can no one speak without enhancement in this space any more?
- Michael Coveney