Wildfire/The Frida Kahlo of Penge West – review by Carole Woddis

Hampstead in the north, Penge in the south.


At Hampstead theatre, Ed Hall, Hampstead’s AD is running a tight ship.

First he brought us the musical of The Kinks’ relived, Sunny Afternoon (completely wonderful).  Next came Beth Steel’s epitaph to old labour and the 1984 miners (Wonderland).  Roy Williams’ new play about the police, Wildfire, has just opened and in the New Year, there’s a re-run of Nina Raine’s bitter NHS `comedy’, Tiger Country, first seen in 2011.

Old Labour, the police, the NHS – the last two hardly out of the news.

Wonderland reminded us, poignantly, of what was – idealism and a working force of shared values.  What Roy Williams’ Wildfire and Nina Raine’s Tiger Country share is a reflection of what it has been replaced by: public service and its values under fire, the individuals within cracking under the pressure.

It’s not a pretty sight.  Institutions can only be as good as the values – and resources – by and with which they’re underpinned.

Wildfire written by the prolific Williams – his writing credits now amount to a steady scrutiny of today’s younger, especially black population – gives us a contemporary run-down of a police force, the Met, where the pressures of having to respond to an increasingly violent society corrode even the most idealistic of recruits.

Unusually for theatre cop-shop dramas, Williams’ leading protagonist is a woman.  Television, of course, is rife with them from `oldtimers’ like Cagney and Lacey and Prime Suspect to the more recent Scott & Bailey and Vera.

Mostly they show the women cops struggling but rising above the stench and stink.

Williams never crude enough to spell it out as such, shows the under-belly of this beast, leaving the public aside, as the macho culture Williams’ female protagonist, Gail Wilde, is required to adopt to convince she is `one of the boys’.

Bit by brutal bit her persona changes.  As though watching a Chinese torture, the drip, drip of daily confrontation by the worst human nature has to offer – desperation, corruption, ambition – and a resentful public suspicious of anything that moves in the blue uniform – spells disaster both professionally and in her home life.

More humane and compassionate than we have a right to expect, Williams writes with the sharpest of ears for authenticity and street lingo.  Sometimes to the play’s disadvantage.  In Maria Aberg’s bald, echoing production – set on a simple rostrum of steps surrounded by scaffolding – it can be hard deciphering the cop/street/domestic banter.  Her production carries the bleakest of atmospheres and hardly makes for comfortable viewing.  But that would not be Williams’ intention.  Rather to make us see that, leaving aside the scandals, the revelations and the `bad apples’, the police too are only human beings doing a hard job under the most trying of conditions.

Meanwhile, down in darkest south east London, Penge – well, how could it not be the butt of a joke or two? – is now playing host to a different tale of ambition at south London’s latest new fringe venue, The Bridge House Theatre nestling within sight of Crystal Palace.

Up windy stairs, decorated humorously with Victorian curlicues – what is now the theatre space was once a Victorian function room – Chris Larner’s The Frida Kahlo of Penge West is the debut production for director Guy Retallack and his wife’s new theatre venture.

Larner has a string of comedy credits to his name, including music and songs for The Right Size and Lee Hall’s adaptation of Brecht’s Mr Puntila and His Man Matti.  Two of his musicals, The Translucent Frogs of Quuup and On the Island of Aars have been Edinburgh fringe award winners.

He clearly has a taste for the singular and surreal, and like Nigel Planer, enjoys nothing more than shooting barbed arrows in the direction of legit theatre i.e. the jokes about the RSC keep on coming and coming…

So how do Penge and Frida Kahlo hit it off?  Is it a marriage made in heaven? Not quite.  A two-woman show about an egocentric actor’s determination to put on a one-woman show about the famous surrealist Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, it’s like the curate’s egg, a show of two halves.  In the first, more mundane part, Cecily Nash who plays Larner’s monstrous creation somehow manages, by sheer force of personality to make her character Ruth, working in a box office, but gnashing her teeth with frustration somehow hideously watchable.  Bumptious but exuberant with a face as rubbery as its expressive, she comes even more into her own as her one-woman show takes caricature flight, aided and abetted by her painfully diffident, put upon uni friend, Zoe (Olivia Scott-Taylor).

It’s all jolly fun and ends on a note of revenge.  Unstoppable Ruth temporarily gets her comeuppance and Zoe becomes a best-selling writer.

I’m reliably informed Larner has really captured how some young women see life, the dottiness not to say the ignorance.  I couldn’t quite see it that way.  My funny bone, I’m ashamed to say, was barely tweaked.  Clearly Larner’s humour is an acquired taste.  I’m not sure Frida Kahlo would have thought much of it either.  On the other hand, I think she’d have loved Penge.  And the Bridge House itself.

More goodies on the way, It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s Christmas classic, performed as a radio play before a live studio audience.  Here’s hoping…

Wildfire is at Hampstead Theatre to Nov 29, 2014


The Frida Kahlo of Penge West is at the Bridge House Theatre to Nov 23, 2014.

© Carole Woddis   Nov 2014.