Politics is a messy business or so we are told in Gagarin Way an
entertaining look at the futility of 20th-century politics. The title may
conjure images of the USSR, but in fact we find ourselves in Soviet
sympathetic Fife, Scotland, in Gregory Burke's impressive first play.
Eddie and Gary have a message - they want to tell the world they are unhappy
with the state of affairs at the computer chip factory where they work as well as with conditions for workers in the world at large, but they are sick of the modern inertia of politics, so take action. They've decided to kidnap and murder one of the company executives to grab the world's attention. Unfortunately, hostage Frank is not what they bargained for, neither is the interference of Tom the 'wet behind the ears' security guard.
The four men put the world to rights. Are they anarchists? Well, Gary wants
to upturn the prevailing apathy and provoke a workers revolt, but Frank
points out this is not an age of revolution. Indeed Burke's unforgiving
writing constantly reminds us that there is nothing to be gained from
idealising the past.
You could be forgiven for locating Neil Warmington's set in a prison
rather than a factory. The concrete walls, metal door and steel
interrogation lamp reek of a cell, adding to the already thick air of
Burke gives Eddie observant and driven dialogue, and Michael
Nardone is brutally acid and wickedly witty as the psychopath. Billy
McElhaney's Gary is an intense 'angry young man', fiercely searching for
cause, while John Stahl is dignified and honest as the businessman Frank.
The only weak link is Michael Moreland as Tom; his fear lacks truth -
surprising and disappointing as he has such oppressive, threatening
performances to play off.
John Tiffany's direction of the actors is good,
but the moments of stylisation are out of place - they add nothing to the
play or our understanding of the characters.
The big question is, "Who is to blame?" Is it the politicians, or heads of
industry? Who is at the top of the hierarchy? Gagarin Way explores these issues intelligently and with a rich, energetic and engaging language.
It never feels like hard work. If you missed it at the Traverse or the
National, grab this opportunity to see it in the West End. It's
- Hannah Khalil
Note: This review dates from October 2000 and the play's original London season at the NT Cottesloe.
Gagarin Way is a difficult piece to watch, not least for its timing. The debut from author Gregory Burke, a former minimum wage slave from Dunfermline, caused a sensation this past August at the Edinburgh Festival, winning an overall Fringe First award for its hard-hitting, in-yer-face approach.
Dealing with unemployment, communism and the emasculation of thugs with a taste for violence, this was never meant to be a comfortable piece. But now receiving its London premiere, directed by John Tiffany at the Cottesloe, just weeks after the horrific real-life events of 11 September, it cuts even closer to the bone.
Tired of the precariousness of their mind-numbing, factory-labouring existence, Eddie (Michael Nardone) and Gary (Billy McElhaney) are determined to prove a point. Late one night, they kidnap a company executive - whose visit heralds more job losses and the probable closure of the facility - and haul him to the factory floor, intent on torturing him and launching a PR campaign for their socialist cause. But things go wrong from the start: Eddie left the balaclavas at home because he's allergic to wool, hapless young security guard Tom (Michael Moreland) stumbles in on the act and, worst of all, their unconscious hostage is quite visibly not Japanese, as expected.
In the programme notes, Burke explains that, with its great jumble of ideas about economics and the 20th century at large, Gagarin Way "couldn't really be anything else" other than a comedy. Certainly, there are plenty of laughs. The dialogue, replete with colloquialisms and expletives, contains some insightful gems about history, culture, philosophy and philosophers (such as the conclusion that Sartres is just "shite with snappy titles").
But there are also sequences that, while they might have rung funny or fanciful way back in summer 2001, now provoke squirms in the stalls - the terrorists gleeful desire that their victim is American, for instance, and their wish to "make political violence fashionable again". And the hope that the comic elements of Burke's play will win out in the end is dashed in a brutal and blood-spattered fashion made all the more shocking by the fact that there are no bullets in Eddie's gun.
Squeamishness aside, this production has a lot going for it. The four-strong, all-male cast relish Burke's free-wheeling dialogue, and for the most part, turn in great performances. Resembling a Scottish Vinny Jones, Nardone is particularly impressive as the deep-thinking, fast-talking Eddie who reveals that his rage is anything but impotent. And McElhaney's realisation that his "message" is meaningless is genuinely touching.
Gagarin Way is a powerful debut for Burke. And, depending on your perspective, it's timing is either unfortunate or incredibly apt. Either way, go in with your eyes open.