Lucy Kirkwood is a first-time playwright with an almost farcically pessimistic view of the world if Tinderbox is anything to go by: her dystopian scene is an abandoned butcher’s shop in Bradford around World Cup year 2018, and the city is on fire with rioting. One can only presume that our national team has come a cropper yet again.
A Scottish vegetarian artist, Perchik, arrives in a meat sack and is taken on as an assistant by the rabidly nationalist butcher Saul, whose much younger wife, Vanessa, is familiar to Perchik through some pornographic films made on behalf of the Conservative Party. In the course of the play, which hinges on a budding love story, Vanessa re-enacts her lingerie-clad Lady Hamilton in the cheeky tribute movie “Fellatio Nelson.”
Saul and Vanessa are refugees from Barking, which was flooded when the River Roden burst its banks. Their children were killed in the 2012 (Olympics Year) attacks on Stratford East. Former employees in the shop have fed the cement mixer and ended up in the fridge. Vanessa dreams of an idyllic cottage. Cornwall has been sold off to the Chinese.
Sordid and larky at the same time, Kirkwood’s play is like a madcap mixture of Joe Orton’s high-spirited blasphemy, Ben Jonson’s triangular power play in The Alchemist, Martin McDonagh’s thud and blunder (an upside-down torture scene is a direct quote), and the poisoned lyricism of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. There are gunshots, foul language, smacked bottoms, bloody limbs and sardonic bursts of Edward Elgar and the National Anthem.
And there are brilliant performances from Sheridan Smith as a gurgling, winking, flirtatious Vanessa – this actress must surely soon play some of her namesake Maggie’s great roles, Millamant and Margery Pinchwife for starters – Jamie Forman as the lubriciously revolting Saul and Bryan Dick as the fly Perchik with a penchant for pulses. Nigel Betts and Sartaj Garewal are hilarious, too, as quick-change coppers and delivery boys.
Josie Rourke’s ebullient production may not convince you of the author’s vision as opposed to her calculated cleverness, but it’s certainly something far removed from the Bush’s studio sitcom tendencies. Underlining this point, Rourke and her designer, Lucy Osborne, have given the butcher’s a grimy, up-scaled dimension and reconfigured the new seating to create a mini-mock West End auditorium, with an end stage, plush red curtains and a joke chandelier. In all, a lovely, bawdy, deliciously off-colour evening.