Previously known for works such as Basildon (2009), Bridlington (2015) and Playground (2016), writer Peter Hamilton returns to The White Bear Theatre in Kennington with his most recent play: The Poetry of Exile. The project celebrates a renewed collaboration between Hamilton and director Ken McClymont, the former artistic director of the Old Red Lion. Written in his trademark absurdist style, The Poetry of Exile marks Hamilton’s eighth play on the London Fringe. McClymont has directed several of Hamilton’s plays, each exploring similar themes of disillusion and mental illness. Bridging eighth-century Chinese poetry, gender fluidity and Roman Catholicism, The Poetry of Exile is a two-act surreal comedy told by two families from Romford as they struggle with the concept of self-discovery.
Rob White is thirty years old, and he is a driving instructor. Sporting rounded glasses and a bowl haircut, he is never without a compact bubble-blower. His wife Lynn has a longing to start a family, and is the younger sister of Josie, whose passion to become a vintner in the south of France is masking her battle with alcoholism. Her husband Greg runs the driving school that Rob works for, and he constantly despairs over Rob’s lack of enthusiasm for the job. When one of his students, Mary-Jane, introduces Rob to the transcendental poetry of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, the already fragile border of his natural world shifts. Overseen by Dr Mathieson, Rob’s disinterest in the realities of everyday life eclipses all sense of reason, and he decides to pursue a career as a poet.
Designed by McClymont, the set manages to be both minimalistic and stealthily complex. The floor of the stage is decorated with a hexagonal tessellation, with a hazy blue light cast across the space. The audience sit on two sides of the black-box theatre, each facing one of two screens. One screen shows a landscape of icy mountains and mossy hills, and the other is flecked with white and blue brushstrokes. A pair of three-dimensional shapes sit at the centre of the stage. later serving as multi-purpose set. Combined with a percussive buzzing sound, the overall effect of the design is intriguing.
Of the cast of six, it is the character of Rob (played by Charles Sandford) that merits particular praise. One notable scene follows his visit to Dr Mathieson (Josie Ayers) at a fertility clinic. As he narrates his experience of “doing the necessary” in an NHS toilet cubicle, Sandford throws his jacket to the floor and does a perfect headstand. The elegance of Sandford’s physical skills are impressive, and he continues to surprise the audience throughout.
Despite the symmetry of its stagecraft, the production is unbalanced. Theatrically, the piece becomes a hybrid of multiple forms of expression, consequently clouding its subject matter. Elements of dance, physical theatre, shadow puppetry and pantomime are present from beginning to end, rendering the performance an artistic mongrel as opposed to pedigree craftsmanship. McClymont would do well to revise this.
The play received a mixed response from its audience – one gentleman exited the theatre before the end of the first act, whilst another gave a standing ovation upon its conclusion, determined to obtain autographs from the company. Although disjointed, the production is not without promise. It needs further work before it can reflect Rob’s fairyland utopia of bubbles – a possibility that is by no means out of reach for the company.
The Poetry of Exile is playing at the White Bear Theatre until April 22.
Photo: Adam Bennett