We're just about half way through this year's season at the Globe, and at this stage there's usually a break from Shakespeare. This year it's a new play by Ché Walker, an actor and playwright who's already experienced the massive stage at this venue - he had a part in last year's production of Othello.
'The Frontline' doesn't have a traditional kind of plot, though there's a thread of a story line running through it. In a way, the play is more a series of snapshots of life as it takes place around a tube station somewhere in London. I say 'somewhere' because the kind of activities that go on there could happen in many different areas of London. However, Ché Walker did much of his research in Camden where he lives, and I found some of the scenes reminded me of the eclectic atmosphere - what estate agents often call a 'vibrant atmosphere' - that flourishes in Camden and the environs of its teaming tube station.
'The Frontline' presents us with a large number of very different characters, but who nevertheless have much in common - in short, they're all struggling to survive on the margins of society and in a world where success is often judged by the ability to make money, and being 'normal', whatever that might mean. As the opening musical number tells us, all these people are 'desperate and invisible'.
The focus of much of the play is the 'Fantasy Bar', with a black, book-reading bouncer who's never been in a fight in his life. We also see a young actor, Mordechai Thurrock, who's constantly on the public telephone trying to persuade an agent to see his show. As the play progresses, Mordechai becomes increasingly desperate to demonstrate his 'tsunami of talent', even offering to perform his play in the agent's office. There's also a group of Christian evangelists who hang about the tube station singing gospels. Their leader is a reformed heroine addict, who hasn't completely got over her ex-lover, or his dubious charms.
Gangsters, drug dealers, addicts, and a Scottish hot dog seller who acts as narrator also figure in the 22 strong band of characters. There's also an old man who thinks every girl or woman he meets is his long-lost daughter, and who totes around albums with her photos. Overall, it's a realistic assortment of people we've all probably seen around our capital, but who we've paid little or no attention to. And this is why 'The Frontline' is so successful – it gives us time to consider the lives of these people that, more often than not, we choose to ignore.
There are times when, quite deliberately, two or more conversations are taking place on stage at the same time. And there are also times when the dialogue flips between different conversations, so we hear a line from one character at one side of the stage, and then hear a line from another conversation on the other. This means the audience has to divide its concentration between the different spheres of action to understand everything that's going on. In a way, it's rather like being at a party where you gaze around and catch snippets of conversation, but don't get all the detail. Or, it's like sitting in the tube, and catching bits of conversation from people standing or sitting near you - well, the few people who speak on the tube, that is. This technique has much in common with film, and though it sometimes causes frustration it does give the piece an interesting and more realistic perspective than the traditional kind of dialogue we're used to.
Matthew Dunster's direction is impeccable, and the large ensemble cast turn in near-faultless performances. And that makes it difficult to highlight specific actors when a cast works as well as it does here. But I particularly enjoyed Trystan Gravells's self-obsessed actor, Mordechai, and Paul Copley's old man, Ragdale. But perhaps the star of the evening was Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Babydoll, a sixteen year old with inclinations to be a 'dancer' and an attitude that would terrify generals and strike even the most thick-skinned politician dumbstruck.
I don't think I've been at the Globe before when it's rained so heavily for so long. Though the summer 'monsoon' lost it's vigour after the interval, both the audience and cast are to be congratulated for their fortitude in enduring the barrage from the elements. No-one seemed any the worse for the experience, and in fact the yard was just as packed as it always is these days by the time the play ended. And that alone is quite a testament to the way in which the audience responded to 'The Frontline'. No-one was leaving early, whatever the weather.
You don't make progress in the theatre without taking risks, and artistic director Dominic Dromgoole's decision to stage 'The Frontline' was just such a risk – and it turns out to have been an inspired one. In fact, all involved with 'The Frontline' have risen to the enormous challenge to produce a hugely stimulating and socially important work. Moreover, in spite of the gloomy nature of its subject matter, it's also immensely enjoyable and almost uplifting because of the underlying humour and the resilience of the brilliantly realised characters. Perhaps the best show I've seen at the Globe.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "First-rate edgy production...Walker's Frontline works as a brilliant series of unrelated sketches." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "The Frontline feels frustratingly bitty. Characters can drop from sight for lengthy periods so that you can barely identify them when they re-emerge for their next turn." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Enjoyed both the ensemble exuberance and individual performances." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Hugely entertaining contemporary play." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Lively, funny, extremely well written. "
Production photo by Manuel Harlan