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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 27th April 2002

The Glee Club / A Buyer's Market / The Night Herron / Popcorn

The Spectator - 27th April 2002

When I moved back to London recently after five years in New York, I was rather nervous about returning to my bedsit in Shepherd's Bush. However, I needn't have worried. In my absence, Shepherd's Bush had really come up in the world. This is largely due to its proximity to the new West London headquarters of Associated Newspapers. It used to be that the only thing you could buy after 8pm on the Goldhawk Road was a £50 bag of crack but, with hundreds of journalists now living in the area, it has become a major shopping centre. Today you can buy almost anything: Cocaine, Ecstasy, LSD...you name it. It's the drugs capital of the UK.

Amazingly, though, the daily gun battles on Shepherd's Bush Green haven't scared away the loyal patrons of the Bush Theatre. (Incidentally, Shepherd's Bush Green must take the prize for being the biggest misnomer in London: it's not green, there are no bushes on it and if a shepherd was ever foolish enough to bring a flock of sheep anywhere near it they'd instantly drop dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.) Earlier this year, the Bush kicked off its 30th birthday season with a play called The Glee Club and it was judged such a success it has just transferred to the Duchess Theatre in Covent Garden.

I have to confess, I didn't much like The Glee Club and I would have walked out in the interval if I hadn't bumped into Tim Fountain, the author of Julie Burchill Is Unwell, at the bar. This is a new play that's opening at the Soho Theatre in six weeks time and, at Julie's request, I've agreed to make a cameo appearance on the opening night. Before I had a chance to tell Tim what I thought of The Glee Club he announced that he was a great friend of Richard Cameron's, the play's author, so, rather shame-facedly, I trudged back in for the second half.

Set in 1962, it's about a six-man song-and-dance troop in South Yorkshire and the crisis that's provoked when the outfit's musical director is accused of being a paedophilic homosexual. The way in which this issue is dealt with by these rather puritanical, working class men forms the main subject of the play and when it sticks to this storyline it has no problem holding your attention. Unfortunately, the characters keep wandering off down an endless succession of cul-de-sacs and every time this happened my attention began to wander. I was impatient to get back to the central storyline, yet it eventually became clear that these digressions are at least as important as the plot. The Glee Club feels like a play that has been rushed into production before it's been properly developed.

The same is true of A Buyer's Market, the play that's currently at the Bush Theatre. This time the action takes place in 1995 and the story concerns the efforts of a Russian gangster to buy a £1 million penthouse from a best-selling English novelist with a suitcase full of cash. The characters are fairly well drawn, and the situation they find themselves in is full of promise, but nothing really happens. At least, it hadn't by the time the interval rolled around. I can't tell you whether anything exciting occurs in the second half since I hot-tailed it out of there. Not for the first time, the lure of the local Blockbusters proved more tempting than the prospect of cultural enrichment.

Still, both The Glee Club and A Buyer's Market have a lot more to recommend them than The Night Heron, the new play by Jezz Butterworth. Butterworth was a contemporary of mine at Cambridge and, by all accounts, he's the Great White Hope of British theatre. His first play, Mojo, ended up being made into a film starring Harold Pinter and you can't get a more ringing endorsement than that. I haven't seen Mojo--apparently, it has no connection with Austin Powers's libido--but if The Night Herron is anything to go by, Butterworth has been seriously overrated. Set in the Fens, it's about a couple of very unwholesome ex-Cambridge University employees played by Ray Winstone and Karl Johnson. I think Butterworth wants us to sympathise with them as the products of England's iniquitous class system--there are several references to the high-handed treatment meted out to them by their toffee-nosed employers--but they're such grotesque caricatures they seem more like evidence of Butterworth's own snobbery. They are like domestic servants as imagined by Martin Amis with a particularly evil hangover.

My godson gave me a Ben Elton novel for Christmas so I decided to take him along to the latest production of Popcorn, Elton's play in which a Hollywood schlockmeister receives an unwelcome visit from a couple of serial killers inspired by one of his movies. This particular incarnation of Popcorn was at the Man in the Moon, a seedy pub at the wrong end of the King's Road, and about half way through my godson asked me if the actors were member's of the pub's staff who'd decided to put on a play. This was a perfectly innocent question--he's only 16--but it captured the charmingly amateurish quality of this production. On the night I saw it there were only 10 people in the audience--three more than there were on stage--and I couldn't help feeling that it deserved better than that. Tickets are only £9. Of the four plays I saw last week, Popcorn is the only one I'd recommend.

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