As innovation has grown in the realms of online theatre it’s now become the norm to use multiple cameras and editing techniques to achieve polished finished results which often are more akin to cinema than watching a play. It made a pleasant change, therefore, to head back to something that was simply a record of a show without filmic enhancements – one fixed camera and a chance to watch what I wanted to watch rather than have an editing choice imposed upon me. This was a recording of Incognito Theatre’s Tobacco Road from Greenwich Theatre’s “Flashback” Friday series.
The play is a devised physical theatre piece from a young company who played it at both Edinburgh and the Vaults Festivals and was their first original show – previous ones had been based on existing work. It’s a tale of 1920s gangsters in London which has two separate groups, one male and one female, combining to form a more powerful entity under the sometimes questionable leadership of Felix Vance (George John). Together they stir up trouble and take on already established gangs resulting in shoot outs and fist fights all of which are cleverly choreographed by Zak Nemorin. The first twenty minute or so is particularly high octane as the performers fling themselves around creating locations with just a few packing crates and their own physicality. The highlight of this is when aspiring boxer Tom (Angus Castle-Doughty) takes to the ring to show us one side of a boxing match. The other four form the boxing ring with just a length of rope and some highly intricate moves which keep the action fluid and exhilarating. It’s perhaps a pity that this scene comes so early as it’s the highlight of the show and really demonstrates how inventive the group can be.
As the second half starts to delve into the individual stories of the group. the piece does lose a bit of its momentum although after all the raucous noise it’s a relief to see a couple of characters interacting in relatively restrained vein. There’s some interesting commentary on the role of the two women Frida (Atlanta Hayward) and Elsie (Jennie Eggleton) in this predominantly male world though I’m not sure it reaches any sort of conclusions and there’s also some thoughts about fame and celebrity as gang member Alfie (Dan Whitlam) has his sights set on Hollywood. While these are interesting diversions the main thrust is the rise and possible demise of the gang itself – there’s a deliberately open ending reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs. Indeed, Tarrantino is obviously an influence as evidenced by the stylised violence and underpinning musical soundtrack “commentary”. There are some excellent uses of lighting (couldn’t find a credit for this) but there are some sound limitations depending on where the actors are in relation to the microphone, especially when they are upstage and some important nuances are probably lost.
I’m not sure if any of the events depicted are based in reality and whether or not the Tobacco Road gang ever existed; suffice to say that it certainly seemed as if they might. As a show it didn’t knock me out (apart from the boxing match – no pun intended); I’m pretty sure, though, that the company would be much more impressive seen live. I was suddenly reminded while watching that I’ve had the box set of Peaky Blinders on my “to watch” list for some time. With all these lockdowns there should have been time to see every episode by now, but I haven’t – too busy watching online theatre! Anyway, this production has rewhetted my appetite so thanks for the much needed shove.
Tobacco Road is available as part of Greenwich Theatre’s “Flashback Friday” series – click here
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