Friday, October 4, 2019

Review: 'We Anchor In Hope' at The Bunker, 3rd October 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 4 Stars

The traditional pub is an endangered species. The price of alcoholic drinks are rising, meaning many prefer to take advantage of supermarket deals and drink at home. Beer Duty in the UK is one of the highest in Europe, with campaigners Long Live the Local explaining that one in every three pounds spent in a pub goes to HMRC. All that, in combination with rising rents, the prime location of many pubs and lack of building space in London mean it's no real surprise that many are torn down to make way for luxury flats.

Anna Jordan's We Anchor In Hope takes place during the final night of The Anchor, a Pimlico pub. Attending the wake are landlord Kenny (Valentine Hanson), bar staff Pearl and Bilbo (Alex Jarrett and Daniel Kendrick) and regulars Shaun and Frank (Alan Turkington and David Killick).

The wild party for the pub's closure came last night, with the pub flickering to life one last time to bedraggled party streamer festooning the floor, dirty glasses on the tables and dry taps (the one remaining beer on tap is.. ew.. Fosters). Over the course of a long boozy night, secrets are revealed and lies are exposed. It's the end of a chapter in these characters' lives, and who knows what's coming next?

Despite an energetic Madness-soundtracked opening, We Anchor In Hope starts slow. Everyone is hungover, things are wrapping up and the majority of the conversations are wistful small talk between old friends. I will admit, at least in the early stages of the play it felt directionless and banal.

But this establishment of normalcy proves crucial, providing a solid foundation for some seriously impressive characterisation. All too soon you're drawn into these people's lives, feeling their pain, fear and sense of dislocation in time. You couldn't slip a Rizla between the cast when it came to picking the best, but these are all performers on top of their game.

Throughout the play, there's a melancholy sense of time passing, with near-constant musings on past romantic regrets, the transitory nature of youth and a growing awareness of your mortality. The programme explains that Jordan wrote the play two months after her mother died - and it certainly feels like the product of someone in mourning.

We Anchor In Hope isn't a downer play. It comes from a sad place, but most of the dialogue and interactions are upbeat and the story is told through a half-jokey friendly back-and-forth established over years of shared history. These are characters who know (or feel like they know) one another - able to throw out an injoke or an insult and know how it'll be received. The flipside, of course, is that they all know each other's emotional weak points.

And so, by the second act, once everyone is locked in, properly plastered and the firewater has come out, the drama rapidly accelerates. By this point you feel a kinship with these people, making it immensely powerful and moving when they begin to turn against one another. I noted that the woman sat next to me actually had to cover her eyes during one particularly intense sequence - that's got to be a sign that a play is doing something very right.

All that takes place in an absolutely wonderful set. The Bunker has become a pub, recreated down to the smallest detail. You can even go up to the bar before the play and during the interval and buy a pint. I wouldn't be surprised if the fittings on stage come from an actual pub - if not then ZoĆ« Hurwitz has done an unbelievably good job of giving them the scuffs and scrapes that bar furniture develops over years of use.

I'm a sucker for a detailed naturalistic set (fringe theatre understandably tends towards minimalism) and this delivers in spades. Even the tang of the pub carpet seems to have been recreated. My only small regret is that there's limited space to actually set at the pub tables: I would have loved to have seen the traditional theatre seating removed completely and pub tables and chairs put in for everyone, but I suppose there are practical considerations at play.

So yeah, We Anchor In Hope is a model piece of theatre. It looks great, is performed beautifully and is incredibly intelligent without even a smidge of pretension. My kinda show.

We Anchor In Hope is at The Bunker until 19th October. Tickets here.

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