Reviews: Epsom Downs
|The Big Race|
In 1977, 'Derby Day' was almost a national festival. Large companies stopped work for the commentary on the race and thousands flocked onto Epsom Downs. In the Derby that year Lester Piggott, riding the favourite The Minstrel, almost gave his supporters a heart attack by trailing at the back for three-quarters of the race. The field was only a few furlongs from the post when he finally gave his horse its head, to burst through for a famous victory. This was the climax to Howard Brenton's play Epsom Downs which the Company of Players presented at the Club Theatre in Balfour Street in the second week of February.
For this production the whole auditorium became the racecourse and the open spaces surrounding it, peopled with a multitude of characters and incidents. We met gypsies, a mother and daughter, pedlars (Kermit frogs and other toys), a police inspector in charge of the day and the trainer of the favourite runner (both noted as grammar school products). We met an evangelist with a bizarre message for the world, saw a long agonising queue for the inadequate ladies' toilets, witnessed a crass attempt by a sacked stable lad to seduce the gypsy daughter from her traditions and heard of a horse who dreamt of sharing its stall with a goat! Themes of freedom, and doubts of identity were touched on, and all the strands brought together in time for the climax of the great race. After which a team of people listed only as 'Inmates of the Asylum' picked up litter to clear the course for the next day: their promised reward, a cup of tea.
With so large a canvas many of the characters could only be sketched in, with some predictable outcomes. The evangelist and his partner were presented as a reformed gambler and an ex-alcoholic, who succumbed again by the end to the betting-slip and champagne. A couple with a young family, frantic for a house, put all their savings on the favourite. A member of the audience remarked during the interval, 'We know they'll lose everything.' But as neither winning nor losing had any real relation to character, the actual result when they won a small fortune held very little surprise.
Some of the characters were more convincing. A well-remembered moment in the history of the Derby brought us the ghost of Emily Davison, wandering unseen among the crowds. This famous fighter for womens' suffrage ran on to the course in 1913 to snatch the reins of the King's horse, was knocked down, and died four days later. We saw her re-enact this in the play, although the author had diminished her persistence and fanaticism and, oddly, gave her no mention at any time of the cause she died for: Votes for Women. The author seems to have seen her in the main as an early forerunner of contemporary feminism.
We were aware of a thin wash of left-wing attitudes throughout the play. A 'grandfather' saw Lester Piggott's win, extraordinarily, as a betrayal of the working class, and a Labour peer, Lord Rack, an addicted gambler, talked of having betrayed his own and his party's principles in some unspecified way. But all in all Brenton's handling was neither radical nor confrontational, preferring instead a somewhat sentimental approach, particularly to his working class characters.
The self-doubts and decision making of the various gamblers were well rendered in good individual performances: Lord Rack stepping with elephantine grace between pavement cracks and bare patches before risking his money; the trainer Charles Pearce's contempt for the crowd; the bookmakers' rivalries and instant calculation of odds; a father's ball skills as he played with his son. The play was at its best in the final scenes: a montage of voice, commentary and crowd ensemble which were both a brilliant piece of writing and total theatre, driven by a radio commentary, given by director Keith Thompson in a voice pitched somewhere between Raymond Glendenning and Peter O'Sullevan.
As director, Keith Thompson had assembled a strong cast, where the less experienced were well supported by the principal players. The horses (one a speaking part!) were very convincing. The author, one hears, wanted them to be played by naked young men.. Thankfully, they weren't.
A production 'in the round' allows relationships between characters to develop in an easy, natural way, and required only a minimal setting of white rails to suggest various locations and acting areas. But drawbacks became evident as the show went on, with much of the action staged facing the entrance side, so that the audience opposite and on the sides saw too little of the actors' faces and too much of their backs. On another point it was probably a mistake to have the two young children played by experienced older actors. It forced us to readjust to the childrens' true ages, over-emphasised their importance in the play, and evoked too many memories of Blue Remembered Hills.
The large cast played many parts to evoke a busy, bustling atmosphere. The characters were listed in the very condensed programme, as were the actors, but not who played which character. With a little help, however, some names were identified, and the versatility of Paul Morton, and the solidity of Graham Kilner as the Labour peer and other parts were impressive. Shelagh Ryan was most spooky as the drifting atmospheric ghost of Emily Davison. David Crook, Christine Macinven, Jackie Clark and Carol Monzeglio made fine contributions. Lack of information prevents others being mentioned individually, despite some good performances. One voice that was not heard, to the credit of all concerned, was that of the prompter, Lee Rayner.
Looking back this will be remembered as a good, well rehearsed production which moved to a compelling climax, but oddly variable in its writing. Towards the end one character observed that he was aware of 'the gas of a good time being had by all', which sounded like the author's final judgement on the very English festival of Derby Day, and a good note to take away from Epsom Downs.
John Ringrose was an actor and director for many years. Author of several radio plays, and a biography, his interest is mainly in verse. He and his playwright wife live in Greenwich under siege from the Millennium.
Review: John Ringrose
Photographs: Steve Beeston