In dealing with the rise of far right politics in East London, Pressure Drop could be just one of many similar plays, A Day at the Racists and Moonfleece both dealt with related themes very recently, but this is really is something special, bringing together Mick Gordon’s writing, songwriting from Billy Bragg and the unique venue of the Wellcome Collection, their first foray into theatre, as part of their Identity project.
Describing it as a ‘part-gig, part-concert, part-installation’ is somewhat unnecessary, it’s a promenade play with some songs in it, but it is a carefully judged production, balancing each of the elements well into a most satisfying whole. It looks at three generations of the Clegg family, white and working class in a rapidly changing East London, and how they struggle to maintain their identities even as everything familiar alters around them.
It is powerfully presented, painfully real and totally engrossing. I was completely hooked by the story, complemented excellently by the music and the staging works very well. The dialogue is just superb, so perfectly crafted and frighteningly realistic, no more so than in David Kennedy’s menacingly thuggish Tony, a powerful presence full of endless bluster and seething with prejudicial rage.
Any play featuring not one but two actors from one of my absolutely top-rated shows from last year, Our Class, had to be good and Michael Gould and Justin Salinger did not disappoint, both providing touching performances as brothers whose lives have taken them on completely different paths. Susan Vidler works magic with few scenes as the struggling matriarch of the family, trying to avoid remembering childhood dreams and aspirations in the face of disillusionment of the daily grind and Shea Davis also deserves a mention as the young George, desperately trying to find his own identity in the face of the prejudice around him. The play cleverly shows how complex and messy it can be to maintain these ideas of identity in the face of conflicting pressures, the two different father/son relationships showing this perfectly in how the sins of the father don’t always have to be passed down to the son, but also acknowledging how difficult it can be to escape these long held values.
The staging is highly effective and all the more brilliant considering this is normally a regular exhibition space at the Wellcome. A red slash cuts through the walls of the room, with three small raised stages as a pub, a chapel and a living room, with Bragg and his band perched on a fourth in the middle of the room. Bragg’s songs are lyrically powerful and imbued with a lifetime of passion for politics, and musically, cleverly show up the irony inherent in the close links between the reggae music that came over with the Windrush and the ska music beloved by skinheads, despite their overtly racist posturing.
I must confess to a history with the Wellcome Trust. I was a Wellcome scholar as a postgraduate and should have done a doctorate with them, but then I would have been Doctor Foster and I’d’ve had to move to Gloucester etc etc so I left academia as a mere Master of Philosophy. That said, I did spend much time in the fabulous Wellcome surroundings and it is a highly recommended, and free, destination where you can happily while away an afternoon in their galleries and exhibitions.
As Billy Bragg himself said afterwards, art may not be able to change things but it can make you think. And in these precarious times, especially for Bragg’s native Barking and Dagenham, Pressure Drop is a timely reminder of both the need to recognise the frustrations of a working class who feel betrayed but also the importance of showing up the abhorrence of far right politics and how it can never be the answer.