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Phil Willmott

Review: SLAP at The Theatre Royal Stratford

Slap The Theatre Royal, in Stratford, East London has a fine tradition of giving a voice to those under represented in theatre. In the 1960’s director Joan Littlewood put a whole generation of East End writers on stage and in recent years Philip Hedley and now Kerry Michaels have tirelessly reflected the culture and ethnic diversity of London in the range of writers they’ve presented in the lovely old Edwardian venue.

The theatre now has a new space, little more than a room at the back of a cafe with chairs around the edge, one wall of which is window through which you can see the busy street. It hardly competes with the National Theatre’s relatively new temporary space, their big red block parked in front to the main entrance contains a beautifully equipped studio but I’d still say the Stratford space is a real asset. Directors will need to use it cleverly embracing it’s idiosyncrasies rather than working against them but if they do then this is a tiny theatre with a gritty urban realness, the perfect place to showcase new talent to a small, selective audience without the pressure of filling a bigger auditorium.

The first production is SLAP a short, new play by Alexis Gregory; his mentor and the pieces’ director is Rikki Beadle Blair who really does know how to use the space effectively. It’s configured as if we’re sitting in the flat of the central character, amidst the action.

I think it’s fair to say that Gregory is still a developing talent, SLAP is a fairly standard domestic-melodrama-with-a-twist. Most first time writers include murder or suicide in their early work and liberal use of flash backs to childhood trauma. These elements are all present in SLAP. I usually let writers get his rooky stuff out of their system before I’ll direct their work and it’s perhaps a little premature to be showcasing Gregory yet. However there are very promising moments of Gothic, heightened language reminiscent of veteran East End playwrights Philip Ridley and Steven Berkoff and several, witty Joe-Orton-like turns of phrase and moments of comic absurdity.

The production is blessed with a fantastic cast. Frankie Fitzgerald who plays a haunted, apparently agoraphobic drugs dealer is, as always, mesmerizingly watchable. I’ve enjoyed his performances in the recent film LEGEND and Beadle Blair’s own play GUTTED and he always exudes an emotional vulnerability and warmth that is impossible to resist.

Nigel Fairs brings a quiet dignity to the role of a Doctor with specialist sexual tastes. It’s a performance of subtle nuance and a character that might have simply been a freak is presented with compassion in three dimensions.

The disarmingly beautiful Alexis Gregory takes the lead role himself, playing a stressed out, transsexual, sex worker juggling clients. He’s terrific, batting acid coated, barbed comments around the place. Exactly the kind of drag persona that goes down a storm in a stand-up environment on the gay scene, channelling gay icons Beverley from the play ABIGAIL’S PARTY and Patsy from TV’s ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS.

However his performance shares the same limitations as the script, we never get to see beneath the brittle surface to any depth of character or vulnerability; a quick “mummy and Daddy didn’t understand me” moment isn’t enough. If he can dig a little deeper as a writer and actor he will be a formidable talent. He’s lucky to have Beadle Blair, whose plays admirably combine operatic set pieces with disconcerting moments of raw emotion, as his guide and supporter.