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Pressure Drop

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Playwright Mick Gordon and legendary singer-songwriter Billy Bragg have collaborated to create this production-come-gig examining what it means to be British, white and working class.

The play arrives at The Wellcome Collection for a short run against a backdrop of rising unemployment figures, St George’s Day and a General Election. For Bragg it is particularly timely given that BNP leader Nick Griffin is currently standing in his hometown of Barking.

Designer Tom Scutt has done an impressive job turning the exhibition space into a set. So much so that upon entering, you’d be happy to just explore the area, which feels like an art installation. Discordant noises from the sound check resonate across the three stages (consisting of a church and open casket, bar stools and living room) and a red, glowing strip runs along the perimeter of the walls.

Bragg introduces the play with his unmistakably warm cockney baritone and kicks things off with a song called "Home". He then directs us across to the living room stage like a "ferry operator herding returning holiday-makers home", and invites us to sit on the pews and empty stages if needs be. So far, so cosy.

The play opens with George (Shea Davis) and his Nana (June Watson) looking at family photos before quickly descending into a domestic argument when flustered parents Jack (Michael Gould) and Jacqui (Susan Vidler) appear. Until you realise that tensions are running high because the family is about to attend the granddad's funeral, the melodrama borders on something from EastEnders. But it’s the news that Jack intends to stand as a BNP councilor that really punctures a hole in this otherwise standard family snapshot. We're then moved on to the next stage, while Bragg launches into another song. The subsequent scenes shift in promenade fashion between each setting. 

Perhaps the most noteworthy performance comes from Tony (David Kennedy), who bears an uncanny resemblance to the character of Combo in Shane Meadows' film This is England. It's Tony who is trying to push Jack into standing as councillor, and his emotional whirlwhind of pent-up sorrow at the loss of his son in Afghanistan, rage and racist non-sequiturs is truly compelling.

There are moments in Pressure Drop when the message becomes too didactic, and too loudly exhibited. A good example of this is when deceased granddad Ron says: "There’s a freedom in music ... If only we could learn from its fluidity the world would be a calmer place." Well said, but the message arrives deafeningly loud.

"Art can’t change the world," says Bragg at the end - evoking Woodie Guthrie’s famous 'this guitar kills fascists' sticker - "but it can change your perspective." And while it remains unlikely that the Collection’s theatre-going crowd needs any convincing not to vote BNP, the plays’ portrait of white, working class social exclusion is powerfully felt.

- Kathleen Hall


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