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Reviews

The Hairy Ape




Drama

The Hairy Ape

In association with Cartwright Productions and Creature of London

Directed by: Kate Budgen

Designer: Jean Chan

Lighting Designer: Richard Howell

Sound Designer: Tom Gibbons

Movement Director: Lucy Cullingford

Venue: The Southwark Playhouse

Dates: Until 9th June

Time: 19.45 – 21:15 ( 90 minutes, no interval)

Review by Guy M. Taylor


Filthy, furious and riveting, The Hairy Ape is another coup for the Southwark Playhouse after last year’s triumphant run of Bound.

In the opening scene, a team of transatlantic firemen - men who shovel coal deep in the bowels of an ocean liner - drink and take turns to clamber on their soapboxes to while away their time off. Eugene O’Neill’s prose is rich and well-rounded, although the characters frequently trade the baton for extended diatribes and dreamy, self-indulgent monologues- this is a challenging play for both performer and audience. 

All of the firemen defer to ‘Yank’ (Bill Ward), a big, tough brute and unwitting central figure in the play. When Mildred (daughter of a steel tycoon and passenger onboard) insists on a visit to the stokehole and comes face to face with Yank, his previously secure notion of self is knocked for six. ‘Oh, the filthy beast!’ she cries, just before fainting and being carried away from a furious Yank. Titanic, this is not.

The original slur is translated by the firemen to the titular insult and an understandably miffed Yank spins off onto a path of self-destruction. It’s interesting to note that in the original production in New York City in 1922, the mayor at the time reportedly attempted to close down the play, fearing social unrest. 

Although it is difficult to conceive Boris Johnson taking similar action against the first major revival of this production in 25 years, Bill Ward’s performance is nonetheless highly compelling. So convincing, so mesmerising is Ward’s turn as Yank, that you can just imagine him, three months into his method acting training regime, hauling crates of frozen tuna at Billingsgate market to inflate his biceps or railing to the masses at Speaker’s Corner, frothing at the mouth. The pivotal moment when Mildred, clad in a chalk-white dress, meets a dirty, seething Yank carries such intensity, it is almost worth paying the admission ticket for alone. Clever lighting (an ever-present) picks out only the whites of his eyes, set in a coal dusted grimace smudged with sweat, and the moment lingers. Powerful stuff.

As with any production staged at the Southwark Playhouse, the low rumble from London Bridge platform number 1 above adds immeasurable depth to the atmosphere. Together with Sound Designer Tom Gibbons’ sparse and gradual squalls of dissonance throughout The Hairy Ape, the effect is palpable and another highlight.

Sadly, next year the Southwark Playhouse will relocate to another premise to allow for redevelopment of the station. The Hairy Ape is not without it’s imperfections - the beginning in particular is hurried - but there may not be a production more naturally suited to the venue than this.



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