From the founders of the King's Head and the Cock Tavern Theatre and with a manifesto for fair wages and new writing, Hope Theatre opens this week with a double bill from the Edinburgh Fringe.
First on the bill is Sandpits Avenue, a piece about two soldiers and the small town they have left. Tim (Tom Cray) and Gwill (Oliver Tunstall) are caught in a conflict in the middle-east while their old friends go through the motions of dead-end jobs and living for the weekend. The play is performed almost entirely in rhyme and this results in some wonderfully poetic moments. At other times however, it is strained and its constant use results in a play that glides along a little too quickly without significant moments of reflection.
The musical interludes are heavy handed, overtly used to display the emotionally fraught reality borne out by a conflict in a foreign land and a suffocating small town. That said, the overall depiction of these lives is powerful and raw, particularly a scene set at a debaucherous house party, full of those 4am proclamations of love and lament that we've all been through.
The League of St George truly feels like the main event however and excels at portraying a bitter 17-year-old fascist caught in an ideology that he finds increasingly bereft of meaning. You can be forgiven for initially expecting an overly stereotypical view of EDL members, especially as Adam (Oliver Tunstall), Nilay (Craig Mitchell) and Jimmy (Matthew Staite) sit in a pub exchanging poorly constructed insults towards the "Pakis", discussing their favourite bruises and struggling to read their own fascist ‘zine. As the focus moves from these nakedly brain-dead ideologies towards Adam's own struggle with his identity, the play successfully navigates the dangers of simply portraying right-wing fascists as inhumane and incomprehensible. Adam develops into a sympathetic character, caught between loyalties to his roots and his new-found liberal lifestyle. This culminates in a violent scene in an Indian restaurant that draws gasps.
Musical interludes are again used here but with greater vibrancy. Each member of the cast plays a different role in a right-wing ska band that appropriates pop songs (I hope that Billy Brag doesn't drop in and find a skinhead bellowing his A New England) into nationalist anthems. This is very effective in demonstrating the visceral energy of their ideology without brashly declaring their beliefs. As these beliefs get muddy for Adam there are several wonderfully tender moments between the cast and exchanges that draw guffaws from the audience. League of St George does not try to offer a solution to extremism and instead is a very strong tale of a young lad growing up amongst it.
As a double-act, Sandpits Avenue and League of St George chime well together, the former highlighting a sense of imprisonment by the oppressive environments of a warzone and a small town, the latter demonstrating how traditionalist ideology ensnares impressionable youths. While League of St George is undeniably stronger, these instances of new writing are an ideal opening for London's latest pub theatre: the future is indeed full of Hope.