When the audience enter the Southwark Playhouse’s auditorium, they are greeted by the surprising sight of actors Tom Mothersdale and Melody Grove, as Mr and Mrs William Blake, sitting naked amongst tree branches that reach almost to the ceiling. This is the couple’s own personal Garden of Eden, beautifully realised by designer Ruth Sutcliffe: an overgrown paradise hidden in the middle of London which is shortly to be invaded by revolutionary Thomas Paine, who brings an unwelcome reminder of reality into the Blake’s humble idyll.
A play with only three speaking parts demands a strong cast, and In Lambeth certainly has one. Mothersdale’s passionate Blake has an awkward charm, a mischievous glint shining through even in his most serious moments of solitary reflection, and Christopher Hunter’s Thomas Paine is a charged, abrasive foil to Blake’s eccentricity and idealism. Completing the trio is Grove as Kate Blake, sweet but spiky and, despite appearances, the true centre of the debate with which the play grapples. The play asks so many vital questions, argued eloquently and convincingly by Paine and Blake, that I could hardly scribble them down quickly enough: has art lost its subversive political power, being dismissed as mere eccentricity? Are the ideals of the arts and politics incompatible? Is political progress only possible at the sacrifice of individual happiness and personal feeling? Of course, a ninety minute play can’t even begin to answer these huge questions, but it plants them in its audience’s mind and, as the argument climaxes, you’ll most likely find yourself siding with either the ruthless Paine or idealistic Blake.
The irony of this conflict is that as the two men, with their high ideals and philosophies, stand shouting about what the people want and deserve, they never think to ask Mrs Blake – an illiterate, working-class woman who represents the great unseen masses whose fate they are so invested in. Both believe they know what society should be and are given the time to express themselves at great length, but Paine thinks too abstractly and Blake too personally to truly understand the needs of others, whilst Kate is forced to sit in silence, never allowed to voice her opinions. It’s a shame to see the talented Grove sitting in silence with little to do but look concerned, but I suppose it is reflective of the time period and important to the play’s central dilemma, showing that even these radical, visionary men don’t fully understand the people, and don’t think the opinion of a woman worthy of consideration.
At times the static, one-note nature of the play gets a little tiresome – the one real plot point (the mob on the street searching for Paine) is only really present when the dialogue demands it, with both the tension and sound effects disappearing the moment the conversation resumes – and the characters of Paine and Blake are more symbolic ciphers than living, breathing people. Yet its central debate is still so relevant, and the premise so surreal and enchanting, that it is sure to make a powerful and lasting impression.
In Lambeth is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 2 August. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website.