Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 25 February 2013

Waiting for Lefty

White Bear Theatre ⋄ 19th February - 2nd March 2013

Clifford Odets’ call to action.

Neil Dowden

Waiting for Lefty caused a bit of a sensation when it was first staged in 1935, with its heady brew of in-yer-face theatricality and agit-prop socialism exploding like a Molotov cocktail in the New York theatre scene before going on to make an equal impact all around the United States. It made the name of young actor and playwright Clifford Odets and the collective Group Theatre he was a part of, tapping into the zeitgeist of capitalism in crisis during the Great Depression.

Although dated in some ways, this lively revival at the White Bear – the first in London for over thirty years – shows the play is still relevant to our own society, struggling as it is in the wake of the current global economic recession.

Originally inspired by a real-life strike the year before, the drama centres on a meeting of New York cab drivers where a heated discussion threatens to turn violent as they argue about whether they should come out to demand a living wage. Seven vignettes show us the back stories of how individuals came to be radicalised, as they wait for their leader Lefty Costello to turn up.

Odets’ rhetorical message of class conflict is loud and clear: in the face of mass unemployment, poverty, oppression and exploitation, workers have to unite to throw off their chains. It’s not subtle or sophisticated, with caricatured villains and victims, but the expression is certainly powerful and passionate with lines like “Doctors don’t run medicine in this country” still packing a punch. What makes the play so dynamic as well as demagogic is the way in which actors are interspersed with the audience, reacting to what is being said on the bare stage by actors who eyeball us as if we are part of the strike meeting.

Christopher Emms’ direct production makes the most of this almost immersive quality, so that we feel in the thick of the action, unsure at the start which of the seated modern-dressed performers are spectators or participants, though the use of props like a camera phone seems a rather clumsy attempt at updating.

The committed young ensemble cast perform with real energy. Jordan Lee is the corrupt anti-strike union secretary, backed by surly henchman Duke Duffy. Passive war veteran Dominic Morgan is fired up by his angry wife Holly McLay. Ex-lab assistant Leila Sykes finds her political voice after being sacked because she refuses to spy on a fellow scientist for Machiavellian poison-gas boss David Blackwell, while conscientious charity doctor Karl Reay lost his previous job because of anti-Semitism.

Paul Harnett had to break off his long-term engagement to secretary Kate Wyler due to lack of money to set up a family home. And Sid Phoenix, who lost the sight in one eye in a previous industrial accident, outs his brother Felix Trench as a company plant there to try and stop the strike.

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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

Waiting for Lefty Show Info


Directed by Christopher Emms

Written by Clifford Odets

Running Time 50 mins (without interval)

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