Tobacco Road at the Network Theatre: ‘ a flashy piece of physical theatre that is funny at points, and poignant at others’
Rex Harrison reviews Tobacco Road at the VAULT Festival, which shows the challenges of living in 1920s London.
Tobacco Road is a piece of physical theatre exploring the underworld of illicit gangs in post-WW1 London. Conceptually the piece was challenging. In their synopsis on their page of the Vaults festival website they describe the work as seeking to “explore the stories that have gone untold in many history books, from the day- to-day struggle of being a female gangster in a male-dominated world to the complex and impossible standards of masculinity.”
I was unsure about the political aspects of the story. The two female leads, played by Atlanta Heywood and Jeannie Eggleton, delivered a very dynamic and energetic performance together. But I did get the feeling it was an odd angle; it didn’t seem so much an exploration of the challenges faced by women in a post-war socio-economic upheaval as much as it was one of the challenges faced by, well…. Illegal gangs.
In terms of its themes the piece felt far more like a piece of gritty gang drama than it did a social commentary. Part of its mission statement was to investigate “how young people find themselves embroiled in gang culture and why people felt they had no other option but to go into crime.” While the historical backdrop to the piece was both engaging and thought-provoking, I couldn’t say it shone a huge amount of light on the social and economic situation of post-WW1 London in an especially rejuvenated way.
Its tongue-in-cheek critique of masculine standards was often on point however, and they employed a fabulous knack for choreography to demonstrate this: at times the male characters would be brawling in hyper-masculine ring-fights, only to have them wriggling their bums in Magic Mike style later on. The plot of a member of the gang aspiring to fly the nest to pursue a creative vocation was a nice narrative touch in this way too.
As previously suggested, choreographically this piece was extremely slick, thanks to Zak Nemorin (choreographer) and Lisa Connell (fight choreographer). Physically it flowed effortlessly from one part of the story to another and I was impressed by the finesse and stamina demonstrated by the performers.
That said I feel that this was also partially what detracted from the work. The stunning choreography seemed to gloss over quite a lot of the other stuff which makes these kinds of pieces tick over so nicely: substantial character acting, voice work, space for improvisation, and so on. In this light Tobacco Road had the knee-slapping vitality of a musical but conversely lacked some sincerity. I’ve no doubt these could have been developed in the piece with a bit more workshopping.
Design-wise the set consisted of no more than some stage boxes and a couple of strings of fabric. I’m a strong believer in the less is more ethos when it comes to set design, but less doesn’t always necessarily equate to more. Granted, the company were creative with their props insofar as they made use of them. Fabric strings were used as cordons for the fighting rings, whilst boxes were used to bring levels and depth to the stage. But a performance of this kind could have been far more technically creative: it felt more a case of making do with limited resources than exploring the horizons beyond these limitations.
All in all, the work put in by the company produced a flashy piece of physical theatre that is funny at points, and poignant at others. Aesthetically it was very impressive. But I would have loved to see a piece with deeper exploration of the political aspects of its text, and which gave more opportunity to its actors to show their individual talents in character development while maintaining the integrity of an ensemble philosophy.
Tobacco Road was at the VAULT Festival between the 13th and 17th February, 2019.
Image credit: Tim Hall.