The real original kitchen-sink drama

Plus: Oh My Sweet Land at the Young Vic

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

Women of Twilight

Pleasance, until 27 April

Oh My Sweet Land

Young Vic, until 3 May

Rewrite the history books! Tradition tells us that kitchen-sink drama began in 1956 with Look Back in Anger. A season of lost classics at the White Bear Theatre has unearthed a gritty below-stairs play that predates John Osborne’s breakthrough by five years. Women of Twilight by Sylvia Rayman (which has transferred to the Pleasance) was a thumping West End hit in the early 1950s. It spawned several touring productions, one of which featured the young June Whitfield. When the script was filmed in 1952 it became the first British feature to attract the enticing ‘X’ certificate (over 18s only).

The setting is a lodging house in Hampstead where unmarried mothers are crammed together, three to a room. While the babies are cared for in a squalid crèche, the desperate mums go out to find work, cash or husbands. In those days, single motherhood was a scourge that could affect a woman’s life for ever, and the marital code was no respecter of wealth or privilege. One of the mums is an upper-class teenager, who claims to have been raped but can’t explain why her parents haven’t rallied to her side. A nice middle-class mother announces that her husband is working in America. No one believes her. The central character, Vivianne, is expecting a baby, whose father used to be an actor before he turned to crime. He’s now facing three murder charges at the high court. If convicted he’ll swing for it, and Vivianne will be left as the cast-off mother of an executed killer’s child.

These were tough times and Rayman’s script spares us none of the horrific details. The lodging house is administered by the imperious, shifty Helen, who runs a side project supplying unwanted babies to rich, childless couples. When threatened with exposure she attempts to murder a heavily pregnant woman by throwing her down the stairs.

Jonathan Rigby’s timely revival might benefit from better actors but it looks and feels absolutely authentic. The seedy basement drips with intrusive moisture and you can almost hear the squelch of the rugs as the characters cross the stage. The paintwork is done in a horrendous municipal fashion popular in postwar years: dark brown to waist height, and lighter beige higher up. The women, by contrast, wear exquisite clothes, cheaply bought but lovingly renovated. The National should send an emissary scurrying to see this play. It could easily become a hit all over again.

The Young Vic presents a complicated show about Syria’s civil war written by Amir Nizar Zuabi and performed by Corinne Jaber. The stage is fitted with a fully functioning kitchen in which Jaber, who plays Zuabi, cooks herself a meat supper while telling us about the war. She had a Syrian lover, Ashraf, who helped soldiers escape from the army but he has now vanished into thin air. Off goes Zuabi to find him. The search for a mislaid boyfriend seems a trite point of contact with this appalling conflict, and because Zuabi is Syrian by extraction but European by birth (raised in Munich) she’s too detached to offer any analysis of the war’s causes, progress or likely outcome.

Instead she drifts around the hot spots of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan searching for her lost chap by approaching strangers with his photograph and asking if they’ve seen him around lately, anywhere, by any chance. There’s a faint suggestion of atrocity tourism here. The onstage cooking, which is intended to create a heart-rending contrast between feminine domesticity and ugly nasty violence, is far too blunt an artistic device. But at least Jaber’s culinary skills are impressive. She deliberately allows an early consignment of fried onions to burn to a crisp so she can toss the cinders aside and produce two replacement vegetables that she then skins and chops with astonishing dexterity. One Michelin star later she’s back to the civil war.

This meandering diary features two excellent stories. A leading Syrian actor was arrested after a performance of Julius Caesar. Dragged into an interrogation room, he was beaten and kicked so savagely that he feared for his life, so he improvised a desperate scam to save himself. He warned his attackers not to let his blood splash all over their nice new shoes and ruin the leather. This completely changed the atmosphere. His killers backed off and began discussing shoe shops and footwear bargains. He was spared. Another dissident, a journalist, learned that his name had been added to a secret death list. He bribed an undertaker to lay on a funeral in his home town and he paid mourners to grieve for his passing. He attended the ceremony himself, in disguise. ‘But I was disappointed by the turnout.’

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