The Waterloo East Theatre, which opened nearly two years ago in a railway arch, is probably still London’s newest. A pocket bar conceals a surprisingly large auditorium — the nearest thing in London to the Edinburgh Festival’s cave venues, complete with cavey smell and the sound of trains rumbling overhead. It is an archetypal fringe location, gradually developing a programme of intriguing work by visiting companies.
Current residents are The Tell Theatre Company, a new, unpaid ensemble with an ambitious programme. They are staging a year of plays about marriage which includes this imaginative double-bill of rarely performed short plays, which have never before been staged together: A Respectable Wedding by Bertolt Brecht, and Bud by the late Cornish playwright, Nick Darke.
Intriguingly, it’s Darke who comes over as the consummate writer, and Brecht whose work seems more of a curiosity.
The evening opens with the Brecht, an early piece in which the cracks begin to show very quickly at an apparently respectable wedding reception. The guests are tactless and rude, and behave increasingly strangely. All the married couples round the table seem to despise each other, which bodes ill for the bride and groom, especially when the groom’s best friend seems intent on singing inappropriate songs and dancing erotically with the bride. But what everyone wants to know is can the newly-weds’ peculiar home-made furniture take the strain?
It is a surprise to see Brecht tackling domestic farce, Alan Ayckbourn-style, although less so that he uses it as a device to expose the brittle façade of bourgeois social convention. It is a complex ensemble piece, with the cast of eight spending nearly the whole play on stage. Particular scenes shine through: the bride’s father (Peter Kenny) with his stock of alarming stories about death and disease, for example, a song called ‘The Ballad of Chastity’ that prefigures Brecht’s later work with Kurt Weill, and a hilarious Kraftwerk wedding dance.
A Remarkable Wedding has been fast-forwarded to the 1980s to meet Nick Darke’s one-man play Bud, which was premiered on the RSC fringe in 1985. Darke was prolific and high profile in the 1980s, and is also remembered for his work with Cornish company Kneehigh. On the evidence of Bud, he has had nothing like the recognition he deserves since his premature death in 2005.
Bud is a Cornish farmer who, over synth pop and authentically 1980s cornflakes, tells a long and very funny story about his marriage to an older woman with her own land. It’s an affectionate story, at least at first, the couple “brought together by creeping arthritis and desire.” Darke’s language is finely honed and a delight for the audience. His Cornwall is shambolic and seedy, with troubling undercurrents of resentment and dispossession. Neil Sheffield, as Bud, does an excellent job of bringing both the comedy and the fear to life, at one point simultaneously playing three separate people and a chicken in a tumble-dryer before taking us into increasingly murky territory.
Bud is an excellent re-discovery, a play of very high quality from a writer whose time has surely come again. The Tell Theatre Company are staging work that needs to be seen, and they deserve plaudits for their commitment to quality.
Production image by Hannah Burton