Graft as in hard, or graft as in skin? Not sure about either application in Martina Cole’s The Graft at Stratford East, a shamelessly crude and self-conscious adaptation by Patrick Prior of one of the novelist’s best-selling crime stories in “the dark side of Essex suburbia.”
There comes a point, actually, when the spin-off from Nick Leary’s murder of a young intruder suddenly takes on the possibilities of Jacobean tragedy: the action moves into the underworld of sex for money, “nonces,” pubs, clubs and cynical lifestyle; but there’s no flesh on the writing, no atmosphere in Ryan Romain’s staging , and the acting is fairly awful.
It’s all not so much a throwback to Joan Littlewood as a throw-up of a bad episode of EastEnders, a soap style raucously set by Jemma Walker’s strutting, bikini-clad Angela, Nick’s wife, introducing us, poolside, to the story and wrapping it up with a surprise revelation.
Angela’s way of dealing with Nick’s behaviour is to shout louder and behave even worse herself. Nick is given a certain pent-up fury and thuggish unpleasantness by Neil Maskell, while a tender sub-plot following the dead boy’s vindictive father played by Roger Griffiths – given the name of one of Shakespeare’s most notable murderers, Tyrell – threatens to topple into sentimentality as he befriends a boy prostitute (Robert Ellis).
Colin Falconer’s design is a neutral grey limbo with side panels that light up and allow for such staging quirks as a slow motion baseball bat assault and an unexpected fire bomb. Nick is a “nonce” after all, apparently, who enjoyed “special cuddles” with his Mum (Kika Mirylees) and thanks her by putting the kitchen Sabatier to unexpected use.
Yes, the elements of a modern Jacobean thriller are all there. But they still need more marshalling, denser writing and better producing. Perhaps next time: the audience and front of house buzz, as ever at this venue, is the star of the show.