Yes, you read that correctly, the Whingers went shopping last night.
Well sort of. Despite Andrew’s protestations that he just had to to pop into Argos, desperately needed an item from Doctors Surgery and that Old Boot Shoe Repairs really had Phil’s name on it, Phil dragged him past them all to one of the growing number of retail units that have had to look for new sources of income.
Yes, it’s a sure sign of how deep the recession is cutting at the West 12 shopping centre in Shepherds Bush that one of its former shops has been converted into a theatre foyer. Well theatre in the loosest sense. It’s not theatre as the Whingers know it.
It’s all in honour of Stovepipe, a new play by Adam Brace. It’s a promenade piece. Not that it was when he wrote it: in the Metro yesterday he confessed to being “borderline fucked off when I heard it was going to be staged as one”.
Mr Brace wasn’t the only one. In fact Phil was well over the borderline on the matter of promenading anywhere being more than happy in a seat. But Andrew had insisted that the Whingers go and that it would be “different”. Andrew should have been leading the Whingers’ triumphant promenade but unfortunately had had been to the podiatrist (that’s a chiropodist with airs) with his foot earlier in the day so wasn’t walking at his best and was not particularly relishing the prospect of dragging his feet (or one of his feet, anyway) around for 90 minutes as advertised (let alone the 120 minutes it actually took).
It starts in said retail unit which has been converted into a box office, bar and cloakroom, all adorned with some glittery silver hanging stuff.
It was at this point that it became evident how very of-the-moment Stovepipe is.
Unlike Complicit whose topicality was scuppered by Obama’s Guantanamo pronouncements, yesterday evening turned out to be thrillingly topical.
For on the very day that Ryanair suggested it might charge passengers £1 to go to the loo, Phil discovered that he needed 20p at Stovepipe to relieve his own pipes as you have to use the shopping centre toilets down the corridor. (Actually, Iraq is rather a quaint topic now that everyone today is writing kneejerk topical plays about Gaza).
Anyway, it would be a false economy not to shell out the 20p because come 7.30pm you are taken down to the bowels of the W12 shopping centre where there are no toilets at all at any price and where you will spend the next two hours (this was the first preview, mind you).
The more difficult call to make is what to do with your coat and bag. You don’t want to be dragging them around with you (although a shooting stick would be handy from time to time) and the “theatre” recommends you leave coat in cloakroom but then then lead you out onto the street to get to the basement and it was chucking it down on Tuesday evening.
Once down in the basement you and the 99 other members of the audience are given conference delegate badges and you take a seat to hear a presentation from one of the private security companies offering protection to businesses involved in the rebuilding of Iraq.
Phil, of course, had to choose the chair with the broken back which provided the big comedy moment of the evening. As Phil shot backwards Andrew laughed so much that Phil feared his tummy tuck staples would burst. Anyway it filled in the considerable delay waiting for the thing to start, or as the actors circling the promenaders “in character” annoyingly announce “We’re waiting for a few more delegates, and then we’ll get under way”. This was time which could have been spent drinking wine (you are not allowed to take alcohol in).
Anyway, the play. Three mercenary ex-soldiers (Christian Bradley, Shaun Dooley, Niall Macgregor) are in Jordan en route to Iraq. One is killed in a roadside attack and when another goes missing the third (Dooley) tries desperately to find his friend. We follow his story – literally – around the basement of the W12 shopping centre from set to set – a hotel bedroom, an office, a bar, a umm corridor and so on.
It might sound clumsy getting an audience of 100 to move from set to set but it seemingly involved less effort than the average spinning set/musical number that was a a trend at the National for a while.
To be honest, it was a bit of a relief to find that Stovepipe had some kind of story to it as we feared it might prove to be a bit of another Black Watch with inarticulate Scottish people shouting for two hours. But this was quite different with some ideas articulated and some welcome humour by the excellent Sargon Yelda as a leg-pulling interpreter.
And if we didn’t quite buy into some of the detail (a figurehead celebrity South African mercenary?) we have to confess we are ignorant on the finer points of the security industry in Iraq so will not go on about it. Phil was still “borderline fucked off” by the promenade presentation, missing huge chunks of the play because he was admiring the handbag of an audience member, or more often than not, the back of someone’s head.
The sound was occasionally dodgy so dialogue went missing, actors were masked by each other and the audience. Lip reading was out of the question. This was making theatre-in-the-round look as comforting as a proscenium arch. As a result Phil was utterly thrown by the temporal arrangement of the final scenes: the device of making the last scene a flashback to a time about halfway through the play went right over his head and he left very confused about it. Of course, this is not an unusual state of affairs but even Andrew – who understood – didn’t feel very satisfied by the ending.
But to be fair, he had been fooled much earlier: at the end of the first scene, in fact, when an announcement amid the blare of sirens entreated the audience to “Please make your way to the designated safety area”. Andrew was up and away only to be shepherded back to his seat by a long-suffering usher.
But what really impressed us was what happened in the “bar” afterwards (incidentally: bottle of wine just £12. £12.40 if you want to budget in toilet charges for two). For the Whingers were approached for something they have never been asked for before: their opinions.
The designer takis (he eschews capital letters or surnames; a cross between ee cummings and Lulu, if you will) – came over and asked us what we thought. He wanted, he said, to hear everything: the good and the bad stuff.
The Whingers – shocked at having their views solicited in this way – duly stepped up to the plate and put takis straight on a number of important points such as the absence of a sheet on a mattress in a luxury hotel, the over-representation of young teenagers in the audience and so on.
But, do you know what? The Whingers came away rather impressed: it’s practically unheard of for anyone in a production to ask for feedback directly from the audience in our experience. Because usually people are too busy making art care what anyone thinks about it. Good for you, takis.
Yes, good fo you, we thought as we made our way through the W12 corridors and out into the night. Good for you.
We’re not clear what the “stovepipe” of the title refers to. Wikipedia suggests the following possibilities:
* The chimney of a coal- or wood-burning stove.
* A tall top hat with a consistent width.
* A firearm malfunction in shooting in which the empty cartridge case jams vertically in the ejection port of the gun instead of being thrown clear, a condition usually caused by not holding the firearm correctly, or “limp-wristing” (!)
* A theater play produced by Britain’s National Theater.
* Rigid funding allocation to agencies or purposes, frequently referring to hoarding funding for one organization or division over another.
* A stovepipe system, the informal name given to a category of criticisms applied to assemblages of technology, sometimes also referred to as stovepiping.
* In intelligence parlance, stovepiping is the inappropriate transmission of raw information to high-level intelligence consumers that could lead to misguided policies, as opposed to the process called vetting or the systematic procedure of sifting, disambiguating, analyzing and producing intelligence products suitable for policy consideration. Vetting is also referred to as analytic tradecraft.
* Adam R. “Stovepipe” Johnson, an American Civil War colonel who led a daring raid on Indiana in which a town surrendered after being threatened with a mock cannon Johnson had fashioned using two pieces of exhaust stovepipe.
* It is also a term occasionally used by storm chasers to describe the shape of a tornado.