THE FOUR STAGES OF CRUELTY
by Adam Brace.
Arcola Theatre (Arcola 2) ) 24 Ashwin Street E8 3DL To 24 June 2011.
Mon-Sat 8pm Mat 11 June 3pm.
Runs 2hr 15min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7503 1646.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 30 May.
Vivid theatricality and gripping plotting – all from four old pictures.
This is the kind of Fringe production you dream of finding. With acting that’s always competent and often immediate in impact, simple8 theatre bring a freshness and involvement which is far more exciting than the reproduction of assured excellence.
Adam Brace’s story is built round four 18th-century prints by William Hogarth, starting with cruelty to animals, ending in murder and dissection. The play opens with a hanging and dissection, then catapults back to show the final twelve years in the life of London orphan Tom Nero, from expulsion from Coram’s Foundling school through apprenticeship to a butcher and involvement in a protection racket.
Richard Maxted’s Tom moves from carefree teenage insolence to terror at the criminals he becomes involved with, while Stephanie Brittain as his lover Anne Gill embodies anxiety torn between love and fear. Dudley Hinton’s Irish gang-boss exudes threat, with Christopher Doyle perfectly judging his conscienceless sidekick.
After a fussy start, with four large sheets carefully pegged-up then taken down, the action moves swiftly. Soon the sheets play a fuller part, as each Hogarth print is hung alongside plain sheets at appropriate moments in the story, then all four displayed at its conclusion.
True to simple8’s ensemble philosophy, cast and directors create a panorama of London life in the first act, matching the bustle incorporated in Hogarth’s moral images. A crowd spending a day-out at the execution chant “Drop! Drop! followed by scenes evoking life in street and market-place, at a grand masked-ball and Tyburn, place of execution. Life is often glimpsed, and overheard, behind the sheets as characters enter or leave the main scene.
Group images heighten the sense of a city; from a hackney cab trotting, or overturning, to a bell tolling midnight, music enhances the action, while instruments double ingeniously as props – an accordion as a dog’s panting (and later punctured) body, a violin-case as a horse’s face.
Act two, focused largely on one location, heightens dramatic tension as power, legal and outside the law, tightens its grasp on Tom and Anne. Altogether, it’s first-rate stuff.
Cast: Oliver Birch, David Brett, Stephanie Brittain, Christopher Doyle, Hannah Emmanuel, Dudley Hinton, Richard Maxted, Emily Pennant-Rea, Mat Wandless.
Directors: Adam Brace, Sebastian Armesto.
Lighting: Michael Nabarro.
Music: David Brett, Hannah Emmanuel.
Costume: Hatty Ellis-Coward.
Fight director: Terry King.
Dramaturg: John Ginman.