Thursday, 21 April 2011

Chris Port Blog #221. A review of Pop by Spectacle Theatre Company performed at Chelsea Theatre Centre, World’s End on Friday 5 March 1998

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 1998

  • The Performance Venue
  • The Audience
  • The Cast
  • The Set
  • The Pre-Show
  • The Performance
  • Criticisms

The Performance Venue

The performance venue was a small gymnasium annex with very little outdoor light.

The Audience

The audience was a group of 24 primary school children (Year 4) together with 7 adults (teachers and invited observers).

The Cast

The cast consisted of two women and one man playing a variety of roles.

The Set

The set consisted of a rectangular acting area marked out by cloth matting on the floor. The audience sat on the floor along the two long sides of the rectangle facing each other in a traverse staging. The two short ends of the rectangle were each bordered by vertical (slightly reclined) cloth tabs depicting an aerial black and white view of a Welsh mining village. Each cloth tab contained an aperture for a TV screen which was used to show archive footage at appropriate moments. Furniture was perfunctory consisting of crates and wooden chests, a coat stand and a laundry basket. Also, in both corners at one end of the rectangle, there were two film set style chairs on which cast members would sit while not involved in the action.

The Pre-Show

The Director casually walked into the acting area and briefly spoke to the audience. He explained to the children that they would be watching a play which might make them feel like laughing or being sad and that this was ok. They could laugh when they wanted to and feel sad when they wanted to. He also explained where the actors’ entrances and exits were (in the four corners of the rectangle) and asked the children to keep these clear so that no accidents would happen. All this was explained very pleasantly and kindly. The Director then handed over to the Company Stage Manager (standing behind one rank of the audience with all the SFX controls) to play some music (soothing, electronic).

The Performance

All very Brechtian in style, theme and content. The actress playing Nancy addressed the audience directly to explain the story, characters and history that they would be seeing. 1920s period music was played when Eric and Marian met. The actress playing Nancy alternated between narrating the action and playing other roles (e.g. another woman who keeps dancing with Eric). At this point in the play, the girls in the audience seemed more enthralled than the boys (who looked slightly embarrassed). Later on, however, the boys laughed (appropriately) at the slight innuendo when Eric picked up Marian in fun to carry her off to bed (after they were married!).

During scenes when they were not involved in the action, actors would sit on one of the film set chairs watching the performance.

The TV screens set in the border cloth tabs were used to show historical archive footage at appropriate moments in the story (e.g. the 1926 General Strike, a Chaplin comedy, clips of football crowds followed by clips of Nazi rallies, aerial bombing during World War II). The visual material was usually accompanied by a voice-over (one of the actor’s tape-recorded) explaining the historical context with an understandable slightly left-wing bias (e.g. ‘exploitation of the miners’). Much was made of the hardships of the poor and the brutal suppression of the miners during this rather grim period in British social and economic history.

Time-changes in the plot were often announced by the actors in a caption-style of speech (e.g. “That evening, outside the Evans’ shop”). Actors alternated between narrating action and showing it.

Nancy's birth was discreetly narrated by the actress playing Nancy and shown by Marian holding an imaginary baby while a baby wailed over the sound system.

Much use was made of the sound system to contextualize historical events without tediously padding the character’s dialogue (e.g. listening to Neville Chamberlain’s 1939 “We are now at war with Germany” speech, air-raid sirens, etc.).

Irony was also implicit in the use of SFX (e.g. Sidney, the evacuee, putting on his gas mask when he heard the colliery hooter because he thought it was an air-raid siren).

Humour was used throughout but controlled and sometimes cut short (e.g. the audience laughed when Sidney admitted to wetting the bed but quickly became quiet when Sidney started to cry).

During the bombing scene, the audience were slightly jolted by the loud SFX of bomb explosions but laughed immediately afterward, releasing their tension.

When news came of Eric’s death, this scene was handled simply and without dramatic overplay. A telegram arrived (an obvious harbinger of bad news) and Marian told Nancy in a restrained, factual way that her father had been killed in action. The ‘feel’ of the scene was one of acceptance that people die (which is sad) but that life goes on (which is happy).

Notions of the gender roles in ‘play’ and incipient sexuality were discreetly raised during the scene when Sid and Nancy (no punk allusions intended!) rummaged through the belongings in the attic. Sid tried on jewellery and women's nylon (on his head!) while Nancy tried on lipstick. Nancy's post-mortem adoration for her father was also raised (looking at photograph – “He was good-looking”) leading to Sid inadvertently upsetting her when he mentioned that Marian had been friendly with an American GI.

After Nancy’s anger at Sid, the actual scene when she raised and smashed the clock was narrated and shown slowly (placing the clock on the floor). Nancy said nothing when Marian blamed Sid for breaking the clock and admitted to the audience that she never told her mother. Feelings of guilt were implied rather than stated.

After the performance, the actors circulated amongst the children, talking to them in small groups about bits in the play they found funny, sad or confusing.


Mostly favourable. The style of the piece seemed overtly Brectian (actor narration, montage film footage, no attempt to conceal workings from audience etc.) while still retaining a capacity to help children deal with sad emotions. As a history play, it sometimes came a little close to modern political partisanship but, given the subject matter, this was perhaps unavoidable (it is difficult to envisage a play dealing with the 1926 General Strike that would not be sympathetic to the suffering of the mineworkers and, by implication, against the Government and pit owners). No overt links to the 1984 Miners' Strike were made but, from an adult perspective, the implications were still there.

The connections between political and economic forces and the lives of ordinary people were well illustrated by narration at an appropriate level of complexity for the age of the primary school audience (drawing on references to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, America’s involvement in the war and American men and supplies coming ‘over here’). Gender roles were unobtrusively examined (the female roles were portrayed as strong without any anachronistic appeals to feminism) and the mixture of coyness and matriarchy explained the values of the period without condescension.

The mood and pace were well-controlled, providing ‘release-points’ for laughter so the audience never laughed at an inappropriate moment. The mood could also be changed very quickly (e.g. from laughter at Sid wetting the bed to silence when he started crying, or from silence when Marian told Nancy of Eric’s death to laughter when Nancy and Eric started trying on jewellery and make-up).

The production made good use of sound effects to convey events which would have been impracticable to stage (e.g. bombing) but the use of TV screens showing archive footage did not seem to hold the attention of a primary school audience (they seemed more interested in the actors onstage). The director later mentioned to me that he did not think the TV screens were working for that age group and he was thinking of superimposing an image of an actor's face across the archive footage to provide the children with a more overt link.

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