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There’s the outline of a smart play in Mark Ravenhill’s sketchy, underdeveloped ghost story, inspired by and mounted in the theatre he now co-runs. The writer takes to the stage himself to explore the King’s Head’s past, only to be usurped by a troubled, angry actress (Suzanne Ahmet) with an even darker tale to tell.
It’s an ambitious attempt to link myth, a sense of place, and distant and recent history to contemporary life: particularly poverty, exclusion, and the way men appropriate or violently obliterate women’s stories. But it’s very clumsily done, with large dollops of theatrical knowingness and only a couple of genuine scares. I’m fascinated to see what Ravenhill, a radical voice in theatre for 25 years, will do as co-artistic director of this venerable venue in future. But on this evidence, acting shouldn’t be a part of it.
His wish to mark a moment is understandable. The back room of Islington’s King’s Head boozer became one of London’s first pub theatres in 1970 under mad, brilliant American Dan Crawford - a tiny powerhouse that boosted the careers of Hugh Grant, Meera Syal and Joanna Lumley, promoted Stoppard and Friel, and helped to redeem Terence Rattigan’s reputation. Later it pioneered LGBTQ work, as Ravenhill has pledged to do.
But illegal bare-knuckle fights supposedly took place in this back room in the Victorian era, and there was an inn on the site in Shakespeare’s day. He could have drunk or even worked here while writing a remarkable series of four plays, including Romeo and Juliet, for the nearby Curtain theatre in 1595. Or, you know, he might not have…
Anyway, soon the King’s Head Theatre will move out of the King’s Head to swanky, new premises in the adjacent, redeveloped Royal Mail sorting office. The grimy, leaky, back room will become a restaurant, windows punched through its dank side wall. You can see why a whole host of revenants would be disturbed.
Ahmet’s unnamed character is a lesbian engineering student who falls into acting via a relationship with a voice coach, back in the 2000s era of bedsits and high-tar cigarettes. Improbably, she gets her first – and only – job at the King’s Head, working for a dickhead writer/director who’s plundering his family history on stage. Ahmet’s renderings of his snooty English tones and his dead sister’s Irish accent are equally crass. Audience members – genuine ones, I think - are enlisted to script-read with her, or zip her into a dead woman’s dress.
The two proper hair-stirring moments are cheaply achieved through lighting and sound effects. Ravenhill and Ahmet each briefly, creepily, invoke a spectral presence standing behind them. But their onstage characters are stiff, awkward and never properly integrated, and the various story strands are left largely unresolved. Overall, it’s a boo, not a woo, from me.
King’s Head Theatre, to June 26, kingsheadtheatre.com