“Tobacco Road” at the Pleasance Theatre

Part of the Caledonian Express season that brings highlights of the Edinburgh Festival to London, Incognito Theatre’s tale of London gangs in the 1920s is hugely entertaining.

It’s a story of self-proclaimed “scum” in South London rising up the ladder of the criminal underworld. The piece is devised by the company and careful preparation has resulted in characters all successfully delineated. There’s a touch of the committee about the plot, which is sometimes predictable, but it is always engaging. The biggest twist is to include two women, Freda and Elsie, admirably performed by Atlanta Hayward and Jennie Eggleton, whose reputation for violence is never questioned. Joining forces with a trio of friends, Alfie and Tommy, driven by the ambitious Felix, they make a formidable five. In the male roles, Angus Castle-Doughty, Alex Maxwell and George John work exceptionally well together. An interesting undercurrent between them all is the aftermath of the First World War, ripe for further exploration.

The dialogue is occasionally clunky, a lot of historical background is added clumsily. But the physicality that the company brings to the stage makes up for any shortcomings; these crooks start out slap stick and become menacingly slick. Aided by Roberta Zuric’s direction, and choreographer Zak Nemorin,with only tea chests and a rope for props, the show is atmospheric and exciting. Castle-Doughty is particularly strong in a boxing scene; indeed several fight scenes are handled well by all. As the gang’s success brings on drunken reveling, it is the performers’ skill with movement that conveys a sense of hedonistic escape carrying danger with it.

The ending is not satisfying. It’s clear the gang is trapped in their lifestyle, which makes a morality tale of sorts, but the conclusion arrives too abruptly; cliff-hangers seldom work well in theatre. When the houselights come up, it’s a shock and a shame. But ending the story too soon goes to show how engrossing Tobacco Road is – addictive and well performed, go see.

Until 17 November 2018


Photo by Tim Hall