An interesting historical find by Two’s Company. The Cutting of the Cloth comes to Southwark Playhouse. Read my interview with Graham Cowley, and review addendum, here.
Two’s Company is to produce the premiere of Michael Hastings’ autobiographical piece The Cutting of the Cloth at Southwark Playhouse next month. This interesting company specialise in producing neglected work from the past exploring contemporary situations and issues.
It is run by husband and wife team Graham Cowley, who produces, and Tricia Thorns who directs the shows. I interviewed Cowley about the company and their new piece.
Does your company have a particular philosophy or mission?
Our main ambition is to re-discover great ‘new plays from the past’ – either works that have never been produced or forgotten. We look specifically for work written at the time it is describing e.g. works by people who had actually gone through World War 1 themselves.
This led to the fruition of various projects, including What the Women Did at Southwark Playhouse last year, and London Wall which transferred from The Finborough Theatre to St James Theatre in 2013. London Wall was written in 1931 and is set in a contemporary solicitor’s office describing the very real dilemmas of the female workers of the time, and their new production The Cutting of the Cloth, although written in 1973, is an autobiographical account of Michael Hastings of his time as an apprentice tailor in his father’s Saville Row shop.
Have you ever worked as a commercial producer? Do you co-produce with other companies/ producers? Is all your work ACE funded?
Several of our productions have been funded by ACE, including ‘What the Women Did’. I am an old hand at getting public funding, having worked most of my life in the subsidised theatre. The council knows me. It is never enough, however, so I also receive money from Charitable Trusts and sympathetic producers with whom I have developed friendly relations and who guarantee us against loss. It’s nice not to have to call on it!
How do you both survive between productions?
Until retirement I had full-time jobs. I was a producer of Out of Joint and General Manager at the Royal Court. Tricia had a successful career as an actress and 15 years ago started directing huge community plays with over 60 people in them. When the invasion of Iraq was announced, she directed an unknown piece written 1916 by a WW1 soldier called “Black ‘Ell”. It was a real cry of rage and we put it on at the Soho Theatre as our protest on the Iraq War. The first night, we only had 50 people, the second brought in 100 and the third night was full, which was very satisfying.
This led to forming a series of plays including a play written by a German World War 1 soldier set in a trench. He had to flee Nazi Germany in 1933. This series formed the start of our Forgotten Voices from the Great War.
Are there other gems from the past you might treat us to?
There are others we have in our sights, but I don’t want to say what they are, as when we gave some public readings a while ago, somebody in the audience got hold of some of the material and produced it themselves. We didn’t have the rights to the works, so could do nothing about it.
This play, never produced before, has much to commend it.
Set in a tailor’s workroom in the early 1950s with two teams of craftsmen and ‘kippers’ (female assistants) and a young apprentice, the tensions between the mastercraftsman Spijak (Andy de la Tour), sewing all his garments by hand and the tailor who uses a machine, and also between Spijak and his apprentice at the beginning of his tenure, are impassioned and well drawn.
The themes of hand-craftsmanship versus machine, harsh and close working conditions, love and the complexities of human relationships have long been the stuff of British drama, and the piece almost has the feel of a Victorian novel about it.
The conditions of the time, where a master could intimidate and terrify his apprentice and work him all hours, are revelatory to a modern audience who may mistakenly think such working practices went out by the 1920s or even earlier. And yet, we are left in no doubt of the shared passion for the craft between the two, and which is tacitly felt by that team’s kipper, the mastercraftsman’s daughter.
The set is very effective, giving a real feel of authenticity, and with a greater budget the costumes could have really contributed more. Given the subject matter, it would have really satisfied to see truly well-made clothes being handled (and in some cases, manhandled), as well as more authentic costumes for the cast. However, given the financial constraints of fringe theatre, the approximations made were satisfactory.
There are some fine performances, most especially from Paul Rider as Eric the machinist tailor, and I also particularly liked Alexis Caley‘s contribution as Sydie, the hand-tailor’s kind yet awe-struck daughter.
Tricia Thorn’s direction is tight, with good use of space and movement. The cast went to Savile Rowe to learn tailoring skills, and everyone is appropriately busy and convincing in their competence.
If I have one reservation, it is that the atmosphere of terror could have been made more effective. There is much mention in the script of the central figure Spijak’s shouting, and this should from time to time have been a petrifying spectacle. There needs to be more use of unpredictable silence and ice-cutting stillness from de la Tour to really frighten both the characters, and us. The other cast members, most especially James El-Sharawy as the apprentice, reacted appropriately to the outbursts to indicate their fear and emotional turmoil, yet these scenes lacked the power required.
The humour of the rivalries between the teams is well written with some amusing spats and verbal goading. The women’s position is interesting to observe, too, though the nature of the relationships were at times a little unclear. Again, had the atmosphere been more tense and pregnant with fear, Abigail Thaw’s excellent comic characterisation as Iris the machinist’s kipper attempting to distract and mollify difficult situations, and the breakouts of fighting between the men would have even funnier.
Just the same, we are certainly afforded a window on a world few of us would have experienced, especially at the time of its setting, and all credit to Two’s Company for bringing this piece to fruition for the first time. It is a play well worth staging and seeing.
The Cutting of the Cloth will run at the Southwark Playhouse 11th March to 4th April.