Che Walker’s The Frontline isn’t the first new play commissioned by and premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe, but it is the first set in modern London staged at this address. The drama, set on a Saturday night outside Camden Tube station, opened last Wednesday (previews from 6 July) and continues in rep until 17 August, as part of the Totus Mondus season. (Artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s commitment to new writing continues this season with Glyn Maxwell’s Liberty, which opens in September.)
Billed as a “modern, vigorous tale of London life on the edge”, The Frontline multiple narratives intertwine as characters including drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes and pimps mingle on the streets of Camden, revealing a picture of a fractured city and exploring issues of multiculturalism, drugs, sex and contemporary politics.
The 23-strong ensemble cast includes John Stahl, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Ben Bishop, Trystan Gravelle, Paul Lloyd, Paul Copley and Ashley Rolfe, and the show features music by Olly Fox. Director Matthew Dunster is an associate director of the Young Vic, whose previous credits include Some Voices, The Member of the Wedding, Testing the Echo and You Can See the Hills, which opens at the Young Vic later this year (See News, 3 Jun 2008).
The heavy rain on Wednesday’s press night failed to dampen the mood of the critics, most of whom were generous in their praise for Walker’s “heaving social panorama”. The “outstanding ensemble” came in for particular accolades, although some felt the number of stories being told led to a “serious loss of narrative clarity”. However, most appreciated Dromgoole’s continued new writing policy and saw The Frontline as another “feather in the cap” of an “exceptionally strong season at the Globe”.
Triona Adams on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “The Frontline professes to tell a dozen different stories. Just the dozen? With a cast of 23, conversations run into, over and along each other and director Matthew Dunster has not orchestrated the necessary clarity. Many stories, though told, are left unheard … The thing is, it is very watchable. As lippy lap-dancer Violet, Jo Martin is matched only by fabulous Naana Agyei-Ampadu as her precocious daughter. Paul Copley works wonders with a potentially tedious role of a sweet but deluded man. Tristram Gravelle is all too believable as the actor begging an agent to attend the Ephemera Theatre. There is no weakness in the vast cast, the singing is okay and there are lots of laughs; so you don’t worry too much about half-written stories or the small violent tragedies that unfold.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “The best feature of the Globe, under Dominic Dromgoole\'s management, is the balance between classic and contemporary work. Che Walker acted here in Othello, but the key influence on his robustly enjoyable new play is not Shakespeare but Ben Jonson. Imagine Bartholomew Fair translated to the precincts of Camden Town tube station on a Saturday night and you get some idea of his work\'s topographical vigour … Some stories come into focus more sharply than others and the climactic murder seems under-motivated. But what plaits the play\'s disparate strands together is a conviction, possibly inherited from Peter Ackroyd, that London\'s past is visible in its present. Miruts talks of ‘this whole city swimming in the ghosts of madmen who feel they shoulda got a better deal’ … What Walker seems to have learned, from treading the Globe\'s boards, is that this is a space that demands constant action and tactile language. In this evocation of the Camden Town gang, he abundantly supplies both.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “The rain was bucketing down on press night, yet even those unlucky enough to be getting drenched in the yard seemed enthralled by this two-and-a-half-hour epic of contemporary London street life … There is a strong sense throughout of the cosmopolitan vibrancy, violence and sheer squalor of London at night … I have reservations about the piece. Walker finds it hard to maintain dramatic momentum with so many shifts between characters and narrative strands, while his bold trick of sometimes having several scenes running simultaneously means there is occasionally a serious loss of narrative clarity … But there is much more to admire than deplore. Matthew Dunster\'s production snaps, crackles and pops with energy, there are some strong songs backed by a jazzy, bluesy trio, tremendous fight sequences and the performances of an outstanding ensemble have an excitingly raw and edgy authenticity.”
Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars) – “The characters … including a Scottish hot-dog seller, a voluptuous lap-dance club owner, a crassly mismatched gay couple and various multi-hued drug-dealers, gradually emerge from a Babel of interwoven dialogue that puts the Globe’s difficult acoustic sorely to the test … An hour in, the lack of focus is frustrating. A gag involving a struggling playwright is flogged to death through endless repetition, and it’s a relief when, in the second act, the characters are at last allowed to tell us stories with some suggestion of depth … There is a host of strong performances, including Jo Martin as the club owner, Naana Agyei-Ampadu as her bratty daughter and Beru Tessema as a pimp-rolling Ethiopian, while sausage-vendor John Stahl rises bravely above his dialogue. But there isn’t enough imagination in Matthew Dunster’s direction to give this street pageant the vibrancy it needs.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Che Walker’s Frontline has its faults, but the play, the songs, Matthew Dunster’s superbly orchestrated production and an all-electric cast of 23 combine to bring to life the sleazy sub-world around Camden Underground station … Walker, a moral but not moralising dramatist, knows how drugs can wreck lives – and, indeed, gives us a climax in which a young dope dealer is sadistically shot by the local Mr Big, a vicious racist played by Robert Gwilym. A climax and not a climax, for the overall idea is that the bustle of the human anthill continues regardless. This means that the play is impressionistic though not exactly plotless … It’s scattered stuff, not made easier to follow by the often overlapping dialogue, but lively, funny, extremely well written and with its serious, combative moments. Walker knows that London is a city of crack, knives, guns and conflict between, among others, Somalians and Ethopians. ‘We’re on the frontline with a broken heartbeat’, sing the cast – and the play proves them more or less right.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Walker has both a genuine, comic flair and a gift for individualising types as they exchange insults, shape up for fights and long for love. Whether it is Golda Rosheuvel\'s Beth, who has exchanged an addiction to heroin for one to Jesus, Paul Copley\'s crazy old Ragdale, convinced that each passing girl is his daughter, or Naana Agyei-Ampadu\'s loud-mouthed teenager, Baby Doll … each of The Frontline people bears conviction\'s stamp. Matthew Dunster\'s first-rate edgy production, beautifully acted right down the line and bolstered by touches of hottish gospel, the blues and rap, captures the hustling turmoil, aggression and neediness of these street people. Unfortunately, though, The Frontline lacks any developing plot-lines or binding theme. It lacks the smack of action. A drug deal that goes wrong leads to murder but that comes as almost an aside … (The play) works as a brilliant series of unrelated sketches.”
- by Theo Bosanquet