‘This is sanctuary’, landlord Kenny (Valentine Hanson) proclaims. He’s talking about The Anchor, his local pub in Pimlico. It’s about to be converted into luxury flats, and on this last night of serving pints The Anchor’s staff and its main stalwarts are drinking to the end of an era.
The Bunker itself has also undergone a conversion, the theatre transformed into a working pub, with a pool table centerstage and the bar at the back. We Anchor in Hope was first performed in a community hall, and through Zoë Hurwitz’s splendid design, you get a similar sense of total immersion, with pints being pulled before the show and during intermission.
Anna Jordan’s play is set on one night in 2016, and based on interviews she conducted in pubs in and around Pimlico that year. And while there are some nice touches noting the present day – two donation boxes for whenever the ‘B’ word and ‘T’ word are mentioned (I’ll let you guess what those might be) – much of it reminisces about the past. Perhaps because the future looks so uncertain, these pubgoers’ emotional goodbyes burst at the seams and old memories spill out. Kenny’s sanctuary comment is actually in reference to 7/7, one of his most vivid and precious evenings at The Anchor. The pub was packed, the news turned off, with people finding comfort in escaping from a brutal reality.
As the kegs run dry, the growing drama is interrupted by monologues from Pearl (Alex Jarrett) and Bilbo (Daniel Kendrick), Kenny’s younger bar staff, and from longtime patron Frank (David Killick) and more recent patron Shaun (Alan Turkington). Most monologues are in verse, and most, like Kenny’s, are about the past: Pearl remembers being six, watching her mum flirt with a man at the pub. There is a stunningly drawn strand of escapism that runs deep in each of these characters’ lives, each of them coping with an often merciless reality. Yes, that escapism often takes the form of drinking heavily, but it’s rooted in a deep desire to commune and connect. That, it seems, is what brings them together, night after night.
Jordan’s capacity for meticulously colouring each character enables the relationships between them to be nuanced, compassionate, and touching. Flirtatious exchanges between Jarrett’s Pearl and Turkington’s Shaun reveal a strong mutual desire complicated by a significant age difference, as well as by Shaun’s wife and kids back in Liverpool. All the while, Kendrick’s Bilbo is struggling to find a place to sleep for the night; the pub was also his home, and after years of being in the foster system he has little to fall back on.
So much is riding on this final evening, and Jordan’s ability to delve deep into each character also means there’s a lot to unpack. Fights, unrequited glances and drink after drink are required to unravel the deep grief felt by each character. By the time the karaoke begins in act two, the night seems to be never-ending. Then, rather clunkily, there’s a lock-in. Director Chris Sonnex is right to give time for each character’s arc, but that results in a sometimes laboured atmosphere. The play’s frequent trips down memory lane are refreshing, providing relief from the sometimes overripe intensity of the present.
While there is certainly a criticism of gentrification embedded throughout this story of a pub’s last orders, it’s smartly left simmering in the wings. Instead, We Anchor in Hope focuses more on what it means to lose something, and the ways in which we carry on.
We Anchor in Hope is on at the Bunker Theatre till 19th October. More info here.