Clifford Odets’ 1935 play Waiting for Lefty is enjoying a revival at Kennington’s White Bear Theatre.
It’s an intense and immersive slice of theatre, lasting for roughly an hour, with the story taking place over a single act. As an audience member you’re invited to join a union meeting as American cab drivers debate whether or not to call a strike, with actors sporadically seated amongst punters and the action rewardingly playing to all corners. If audience participation isn’t your thing, fear not: the intimate black box space of the White Bear Theatre allows the actors to address their appeals directly to audience members, allowing you to vicariously feel part of the story, albeit passively.
Through a series of vignettes, we learn the backstory of each of the attendees, and the austere circumstances that have brought them to the brink of strike action. Perhaps in-keeping with the socialist ethos of the piece, each actor is afforded their moment in the spotlight, as Waiting for Lefty plays out through snapshots rather than a central plot structured around principal characters. With a cast of eleven actors, the short, punchy scenes piece together to represent a flavour of the troubled 30s and the social unrest that built before the war.
The revival of Waiting for Lefty is timely in light of the global financial crisis. It can make for uncomfortably close-to-home drama, especially if you watch it (as I did) with someone for whom union disputes and strike action threats have become an ugly reality as the working and middle classes once again feel the pinch of prolonged recession. Odets’ writing is like an Orwell essay: political, punchy, and accessible. He has a real skill of crafting rounded characters from remarkably few lines.
Whereas Waiting for Lefty was originally written for a variety of ages, this production gathers a talented ensemble of young actors, and this approach succeeds in giving the production a tangible energy. A standout performance is by David Blackwell, who brings subtle humour to his characterisations of an amoral and manipulative science administrator (in a grim foreshadowing of the Manhattan Project and the development of atomic weapons that was still a few years away at the time of the original production) and a hospital manager who has to cut staff. Karl Reay is also impressive as the Jewish Dr Benjamin, who faces anti-Semitism in the workplace; and the scene between Blackwell and Reay is an undoubted highlight. Jordan Lee does an excellent job of chairing the meeting and bringing some semblance of order to the hot-headed proceedings.
The space is used very imaginatively, maintaining the stripped-down austerity of the black box space (save for a rack of props against the far wall) and instead filling the stage with actors. Director Christopher Emms’ focus is rightly on his actors, and he brings the best out of his young cast, most importantly capturing the spirit of a union meeting and maintaining the edginess of the piece throughout.
Waiting for Lefty is a challenging and in-your-face drama, where theme dominates over plot. It’s worth seeing as a great ensemble piece, and especially if you fancy something short, snappy, and a little bit different.