Happy Hackney birthday, Arcola: 20 years at the cutting edge of London theatre

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Arcola©DA0220cast:© david.altheer@gmail.com cast take a bow at Arcola Theatre, Ashwin Street E8 3DL, Dalston Hackney Lon, at The Cutting Edge world premiere 180220
World premiere for The Cutting Edge, by Jack Shepherd, top, with Mehmet Ergen at the Arcola

WHEN LEYLA NAZLI and Mehmet Ergen started the Arcola in 2000 they could hardly have imagined that the venue would become a destination venue for theatre lovers from the world over. 

Setting up a stage among the beams and dust of an old factory they started to create and stage drama about real lives, including of the Londoner-migrants who used to work in the clothing sweatshop that once occupied the building. 

Funding? Ergen, now 53, admits that without ambitious use of a credit card, the venture may have quickly failed. Instead the Arcola Theatre, now has premises in heart-of-hipsterville Ashwin Street E8 3DL, swish and with a classy bar-café, but still sometimes tricky to navigate (which is almost a requisite for off-West End theatres). Leading reviewers have had to learn where Dalston is; or at least know how to point an Uber driver to it.

A 20th anniversary calls for a commemoration and what better than a celebratory season? The lead play is The Cutting Edge, a world premiere written and directed by 79-year-old actor Jack Shepherd.

Two millennials have idealistically quit the metropolis to live in an ascetically green way in the countryside — even switching on an electrical device has to be carefully considered. But their ideal is far from an idyll and the strain is affecting Anna (Jasmine Hyde), who has her hands full running the house, and is allocated most responsibilities, having even to deal with a tiresome city acquaintance who repeatedly phones to speak to her husband, Chris (David Sturzaker), usually when a pot is about to boil over. 

Chris, too, looks certain to boil over. A journalist who used to write pompous but mostly praised pieces about art and music, until he tired of featuring in Private Eye magazine’s Pseuds Corner, Chris is now a man of few words, more physical than aesthetic, as he struggles to be a man of the land.

Arcola©DA0220:© david.altheer@gmail.com actor Maggie Steed at Arcola Theatre, Ashwin Street E8 3DL, Dalston Hackney Lon, for The Cutting Edge world premiere 180220
Grand dame: The Cutting Edge star Maggie Steed

Anna cheerily tolerates being put upon by friends such as gentle widower, regular drop-in and litterateur Peter (James Clyde). Her patience is stretched when two strangers, grand dame Elvira (Maggie Steed) and motorbiking rocker Zak (Michael Feast), crash into the homestead and pull up a chair, eager, it devolves, to drain every bottle of alcohol within sight. 

As the kind of aged arty type you might meet in a Chelsea pub, Steed does well not to drown the play with her character’s wheedling yet amusing demands and Feast makes his relationship with the older woman affectionate and charming. Asked about her art, he says: “She’s more celebrated for her lifestyle than her work”.

A play of ideas, faultlessly directed and always entertaining, it uses a simple story to discuss a range of issues. Art and its commodification, the subverting of women (cleverly avoiding mention of the word feminism), the need for money, male aggression, ecology: all are examined with an exhilaration that makes 2-plus hours sitting still in a small seat pass easily enough.

Not, however, that it is just ideas. You warm to the characters, especially Anna, a young earth mother type who can rustle up a smile under the greatest pressure.

The set-up at times brings to mind Chekhov, and the reference to “sly farmers” may make film fans think of 1986’s Jean de Florette, a movie about cruel peasant deception. 

The second half turns more serious, a little intense-argumenty Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, before Shepherd lobs in the kind of humour that won chuckles before the interval. 

His script does not strive for effect so no lines leap out but it tells us enough about the characters to maintain our curiosity about what happens next. 

Over post-preview drinks others who’d just seen the show claimed the ideas were not new. It’s probably true that many of the opinions, especially on contemporary art, probably stem from Shepherd’s student years. And that if the play’s aim was to question “what matters most in the modern world”, as stated in the programme, it was not achieved. 

Whatever, The Cutting Edge will give you an enjoyable and stimulating time. 

David Altheer 210220

* The Cutting Edge plays to 21 March 2020, Mon-Sat 7.30pm; 2.30pm matinees Sats and Weds 18 March. Also on at the Arcola is Creative Disruption Festival, which runs until 15 March 2020. Tickets £12-£30, disabled access and facilities good.

* Backstory: Million-pound Arcola move; Turkish lesson for Hackney; A Dalston music fest; Hackney group makes theatre work for youngsters

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