Audiences of the early 1900s were thrilled when someone in a David
Belasco play would turn on a faucet and real water would come out. But
we, we say, are beyond that. Leave that sort of tinpot realism to the
movies. Theater isn't facts, it's truth.
It sounds very grown up. But some part of us is still Alice,
wishing we could walk through the mirror into that other room. "The
Kitchen" at the Oxford Playhouse spoke to that wish last season,
putting us in the middle of a hotel kitchen before, during and after
the luncheon rush. If we'd ever been curious about what went on behind
those swinging doors, we found out, on the pulse. If we'd ever worked
back there, it all came back. The experience was truth enough.
David Storey's "The Changing Room" at the Odyssey Theater
(presented by Actors for Themselves, the group behind "Are You Now or
Have You Ever Been?") is this year's "The Kitchen." This time we're
sitting on a bench in the locker room of an English football (rugby)
team as they suit up for the game, drag themselves in at the half and
get dressed afterwards for home.
Nothing remarkable happens. This is not the Big Game beloved in
sports fiction, just the regular weekend one. And these are not the
British equivalent of the L.A. Rams, simply working-class guys who
pick up some extra money by playing together. (Not all of them even
like the sport.) They play's action is nil—one player (Lawrason Driscoll) gets a broken nose and that's it—and if you want to see
it as a metaphor of something, that's your doing, not Storey's.
He has played a lot of football himself (see his novel, "The Sporting
Life") and this is simply his memory of an average afternoon.
As in "The Kitchen" we get caught up in the rigmarole and the
rhythm of the job these people are here to do. The men drift in, chat,
slowly—reluctantly, it almost seems for some—hang their clothes on a
hook (no individual lockers here). But as they duck into their striped
jerseys and pull on their shorts they feel themselves slowly becoming
football players, something more than they were when they came in—part
Their exhaustion at the half doesn't interrupt some .current of
exhilaration from the to-and-fro of the game, This comes to its peak
when the game is over (they won!) and the larking starts. Last week's
sports page had an article by a woman sportswriter on the kind of
silliness-she wasn't putting if down—that breaks out in locker rooms
after a win. That's in "The Changing Room," and sa is the slow
deflation as these temporary titans put on their stocking caps and
walk back home to the Missus and kiddies—after a pint or two at the
local, of course.
If Wesker was pointing an accusing Marxist finger
in "The Kitchen," Storey is basically celebrating what he seems to
take as a healthy ritual, even if the society behind it is sick. The
club is owned by a rather fatuous old codger who roams around the
dressing room saying dumb things (Stephen Roberts), but this is no
villain, like the hotel owner in "The Kitchen." Clearly football is- a
good thing for these men, one of the few meaningful things in their
lives, and this is the guy who lets them play it. Read as a metaphor
for England's class system, it's a surprisingly conservative play.
But, as indicated, the metaphor hunting is
optional. Basically "The Changing Room" is a vicarious experience,
allowing the viewer a visceral hint of what athletes—even weekend
athletes—go through and what they get out of it. If a visitor from
Mars wanted to know what this team-sport business was all about, this
is the play you would take him to.
Bill Devane's production at the Odyssey has most of
what it needs in matters like rhythm, pace, easiness of interplay. The
cast simply needs a bit more experience to make the flow absolutely
A more serious criticism—though this may come too—
is that we're not absolutely sure in every case what kind of home this
guy comes from when he isn't playing, whether he's in it more for the
bread or for the fun, what this afternoon means in relation to the
rest of his week. Storey doesn't provide that much information in the
script himself, but if the actors don't invent a very specific
identity for themselves the play gets a bit like a mob scene.
To cast a young man as a team captain just over the
hill (Andrew Robinson) and a lithe-alert one as a slow-thinking hulk
(Driscoll) also seems a bit self-defeating. Surely those hints that
Storey does give as to characterization should be followed up.
Still it's a strong ensemble effort—Michael McGuire
as the talkative Walshy and Bert Conway as the fussy club secretary
MacKendrick are especially effective—and Barry Robison's streaked
setting puts you there. NB—a locker room play will have a lot of
nudity, so don't say you weren't warned. "The Changing Room" is vivid