Those who know that I have a tendency to mention Margaret Thatcher on occasions might pause before judging it a full-blown obsession. And if I have such a fault or failing (or quality, for that matter) it's a fascination shared by numerous writers and producers, and a large section of the theatre-going public too, or so it seems. Because there have been a number of successful shows recently which have involved Thatcher in one form or another: 'Billy Elliot - The Musical' to name but one. And to prove that assertion, here's another play about Thatcher and one of her key policies, the 'Free Market'.
'Market Boy' is set in Romford, a town on the eastern edge of London, during the period 1985 to 1991 – the heyday of Thatcherism which initially bloated the bank accounts of the newly-middle class, but closed in a deep and miserable recession.
Thirteen year-old 'Boy' is persuaded by his mother to ask for a job on a shoe stall in the town's market where all the remaining action is set. Initially brutally taunted by the other assistants on the stall, once Boy has been duly employed - doing highly essential 'gofer' jobs, such as getting the tea - he's introduced to other stall-holders, such as the butcher with a penchant for cooking and quality food, the record stall-holder who's into drugs and enters a psychotic rage when anyone mentions his former job (selling bananas) and the market inspector who, in his own words, is a 'horrible bastard' who rules 'his' market wielding a hammer, but eagerly takes obligatory back-handers when collecting rent. Other characters include an assortment of flypitchers and customers, the most beautiful woman in Romford and Thatcher herself.
The infamous Conservative party poster 'Labour's Not Working' heralds Katrina Lindsay's colourful and vibrant design which includes a realistic collection of market stalls that are pushed around the stage in semi-balletic fashion. A huge central gantry gives a three-dimensional quality to the piece, and the stage revolve assists in focusing attention as the actions switches between various stalls. The inevitable battered transit van zooms on to the stage acting not only as a means of transporting goods to the shoe stall, but also functioning as a kind of on-site bedroom for the amorous activities of the shoe stall-holder, jovially-played by Gary McDonald. And a flashy convertible brings a 'loadsamoney' city broker back to gloat over his former workmates at the market.
The cast seemed a little hesitant for the first few minutes until they got into their stride - as they most surely did. Danny Worters' Boy has that dull, monotonal and confused awkwardness I recognise from the moody adolescents I encountered in my teaching days, as well as my own youth. It's a convincing portrayal of a boy without a role model who's struggling to find an identity and a path for his life. Initially attracted to spending his working life in the market, he eventually seeks a life elsewhere.
Nicola Blackwell's characterisation of the Iron Lady is a grotesque vision with a high, frighteningly huge, masculine forehead and a chillingly-wicked, pointed nose. But her vocalisation was authentic and, when she descends from the flies, there's something of the 'angel of death' about her.
There's good all-round support from a sizeable, energetic and lively cast. Having taught in a school which was located on the edge of a market similar to that depicted in this show, I can not only sympathise with the characterisations, but can also vouch for their authenticity. Like Boy in the play, many of my pupils would absent themselves from school on market days in order to earn a few quid, and many parents I knew worked on market stalls, and had the same 'colourful' speech the characters in 'Market Boy' employ.
Vibrant and earthily humorous, 'Market Boy' is endearing, thanks to well-drawn (though some might say stereotypical) characters and cocky banter. But I'm not sure that David Eldridge's play clearly communicates (or even knows) what it's really about, because there are two distinct, but interwoven and thus confusing, strands to this show. First, there's a kind of 'rights of passage' element involving Boy and his relationship with his mum, his new-found girlfriend and society at large. Then there's the Thatcher strand and the description of the joy of the free market turning sour come the bust of the early 1990s. But if the intention was to condemn Thatcher's policies outright, it doesn't succeed. It treats Thatcher relatively light-heartedly, and is by no means a scathing indictment of 'Tina's' policies. At the same time, since it portrays her as a rather grotesque figure, albeit one who's lauded and applauded by the cash-hungry stall-holders, it's clear that it's 'having a dig', albeit a gentle one.
The cast seemed a little taken aback and surprised by the rousing reception the audience gave them come the curtain calls. This might be because, during previews, they've had a few glitches which have led to a spate of rather poor reviews being posted on some web sites. However, apart from an inexplicably lengthy pause at the beginning of the second half, on this occasion at least, the show was technically flawless, and not only moved along at a brisk and lively pace, but had the audience engaged, well entertained and richly amused.
As we continue to overdose on consumerism, merrily drinking its moreish liquor in the environmental 'Last Chance' saloon, it may seem hard to believe that delirious boom can so quickly turn into miserable bust. Indeed, for many people, the last major recession is mere history, even though some still bear the appalling scars. But when the bubble finally bursts, as it inevitably will, perhaps we'll regret our slave-like devotion to the Free Market, and curse the day Margaret Thatcher pronounced it as the 'one true way', economically speaking of course. Until that day, we, and Romford market, drink on ...
What the popular press had to say.....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Highly engaging." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Stunning." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "It runs with much of the zip and colour of a good musical and, amid the huge cast, there is a wealth of first-rate acting." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Dramatically inert." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "An ensemble production of dazzling flair and comic vitality." SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "It’s the most fun I’ve had at the theatre in ages...It’s bold, brash, and fabulous"
Production photo by Robbie Jack