FringeReview UK 2020
Jack Shepherd writes and directs The Cutting Edge in the Arcola’s Studio 1, designed by Louie Whitemore, lit by Richard Williamson, with Sound Design by Lex Kosanke. Production Manager’s Ian Taylor, and Aida Bourdis is Stage Manager. Till March 21st.
From a dramatist known for powerful political plays – Jack Shepherd’s a rare successor to his friend Trevor Griffiths – this Chekhovian idyll comes as a tender shock. The Cutting Edge is slow burn, but when those delicate explosions come, you feel ripples of devastation.
Though it’s a distant sequel too. The Cutting Edge premiered in the Arcola’s Studio 1 revisits characters from a 1998 play, Half Moon. Shepherd though has written an entire world here. And it’s radical in another sense.
Each of this drama’s five characters are artists, studied or wrote about art. That might threaten obliquity and boredom. It isn’t and doesn’t. For one thing it’s about a retreat from art, how we disenchant ourselves or are disabused, resign almost fulfilled or find it late on. For another it’s written by someone as immersed in its practice as his characters.
Before he became an actor then dramatist, Shepherd attended King’s College Newcastle, an art school later synonymous with ferocious intellectual engagement. Even then Shepherd was taught by international figures like severe landscape-turned-abstract painter Victor Pasmore and Pop-Art leader in the UK, Richard Hamilton. Everything went from dark swirls to neon overnight.
Is this reflected in a later art’s cutting edge? Or has David Sturzaker’s art critic Chris been edged out, cut by the very talent he once commanded? Because seven years ago – it’s now June 1995 – he gave it all up, rescued by Jasmine Hyde’s Anna, an office junior. And bought this Sussex farm. It’s the good life for real without much humour. Or as we discover, good earth. Earthy humour at least arrives unexpectedly.
In fact it’s burbling Wyndham Lewis from the start in the guise of handsome widower painter Peter, James Clyde’s cheerfully mansplaining figure, a bearded Boho who enjoys holding forth to Anna, busy with preparations for tonight’s dinner party. They’re struggling and Anna refuses Peter’s financial offer, though he does bring wine. He offers to make tea. That’ll help.
With a screeching motorbike something of the future arrives in its own time. When Chris arrives he’s furious. A Harley-Davidson has driven straight at him forcing him off the road.
Shepherd both writes and directs his play, set with Act One in a naturalistic kitchen designed by Louie Whitemore: L-shaped with sink and surfaces for chopping real food, and in the crook of the L a stove where the casserole’s cooking. It’s a lovingly detailed affair upstage, where a blue screen blocks off any brickwork above, all lit by Richard Williamson.
Noises off include those motorbike revs, police sirens, knocks and voices upstairs from a sound design by Lex Kosanke; and the silence Chris craves. Especially when offstage composer Charles rings Chris to write his biography thrice daily. Peter’s at a farmhouse table, foursquare central, blocking Anna’s peripheral buzz. Characters are prone to tell Anna when things might go awry. She has little personal space others don’t try invading throughout the course of the first half.
Into this undercurrent of ruffled disquiet an apparition, Maggie Steed’s Elvira hammers on the door. She’s cutting edge in manner, once a minor artist herself. And in how she arrived here. ‘I know what you’re thinking… how did it come about that this absolute stranger… if not actually decrepit… happen to wander uninvited into my kitchen on the back of a rather recklessly driven motor cycle?’ ’Well it did cross my mind’ Anna admits. Elvira twice reminds her to turn the casserole down. And for that second G&T.
Elvira visited here in the late 1930s for weekend parties thrown by owner Quentin Smith, bohemian artist with a Cezanne slung on the kitchen wall. Like red herrings they shimmer as Steed points them out, and fade. They’re context, not plot-points: you wish they were. But that’d start a spurious discussion of art’s monetary values – not Shepherd’s aim.
Elvira’s visiting old haunts one last time, driven by one ex-pop singer Zak (originally, less sexily, Gerald) as a bargain. Michael Feast’s beady-eyed biker duly arrives at the end of Act One, mouth full of Mockney.
Shepherd’s generous to his characters. We’ve had Anna subsumed by Elvira. It’s Zak’s and returning Peter’s turn, with more of Chris.
The pith of Shepherd’s arguments come in Act Two’s yard outside, effected by lowering window and door wooden frames, darkening the foreshortened kitchen behind, letting characters step through into the yard with decked chairs and a rickety table Zak spends half the act fiddling with, pronouncing about Duchamp’s Urinal from a semi-recumbent position. Because this frothy-mouthed ex-punk whose hair-spikes are worn nowadays on the inside, dropped out of art school.
Art maybe, but Shepherd’s a dramatist of ideas too, and Chris’s fragility – unsuspected by Zak till Chris boils over – is the trigger. Chris suspects his own fluent gift projecting value onto objects, boosting prices: ‘I’d read a lot of art theory… most of it translated from the French… I knew exactly what kind of language to use in order to sound authoritative.’ Some art ‘might even move me.’
Chris even hints at ancient paranoias. Anna’s held him from darkness, Zak brings it back. But if Chris’s perspective ‘changed with the weather’ so in part sincere ‘It was no life though. Not for a grown-up.’ That’s the cue to shut up. Zak keeps prodding, suggesting it’s personal for Chris, that art still ‘gets under your skin’ then riffs on ‘ordinary people’. He could’ve started singing Common People which song kicked off in St Martin’s Art College; you get a whiff of Jarvis Cocker. Shepherd suggests he has a point.
Shepherd’s drama though shifts back through Elvira’s hung-over return, with Anna’s attempts to feed her. Shepherd’s characterising of Elvira is a highpoint. The sensation of riding pillion Elvira claims ‘gave this wrinkly old vagina a thrill’. Said it was earthy. ‘Disinhibited’ Elvira is, not simply by drinking everyone under the table, but sensing herself on a threshold.
Steed’s performance masterclass as a bright old thing dominates with chiffons of charm and transparent ligging, graced by her conferring knowledge of the past on her hosts, and looming mortality. Steed’s vocal range is reined-in coloratura, her Sibylline expressiveness breathtaking.
Noises off suggest further events, but Anna’s the tremulous heart of it all. Everything tends to a burden Anna’s borne so long it shudders out of her when alone: gradations of coping, nursing, hiding small terrors. Hyde, so often on radio, shows us what we miss in theatre. Her Anna’s both fiercely protective and keenly aware that Chris’s decisions can’t be for her sake. Hyde sears it out in a whisper. This gentle, steely heart-rending solitude, fending off each character in turn is akin to Eleanor Dashwood’s sudden release of feeling in Sense and Sensibility. It’s why we come, for moments like this that tell us of living and partly living.
The men are very fine too. Feast needles with an air of devastating innocence: a lithe wire who half-knows he’s a catalyst, never moved himself except perhaps by twelve-bar blues. Sturzaker’s nervy simmering Chris is exactly right: clipped in feeling, quietly relaxing into authority through paragraphs of his forsaken triumphs then snapping. Sturzaker suggests he’s probing and reliving a bruise. Clyde’s avuncular provider – the one still painting – insinuates sudden, desperate need but swiftly scents character and danger, radiating loyalty.
This is first-class Shepherd. Ideas are prodded out of character, not into them. The drama of ideas is subsumed by an experiential glow recalling how Elvira subdues her immediate environment to herself. Characters scumble across the marriage of Chris and Anna, leave them marked but ready for the quiet desperation of loving. They’re so fully realised you hope, unfairly, for a sequel.