From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
It’s a Great Big Shame
Dir: Written and directed by Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh has built a reputation over 20 years as a dramatist and film maker exposing absurdity in the attitudes and values of social life. His particular focus has often been on the ridiculous posturings of suburban life. Crucial to his style has been the use of improvisation techniques by actors. The result is that his characters frequently express cruelty, bitterness or despair through cracking dialogue, often spiced with outrageously wicked lines. His characters have an immediacy which makes them instantly recognisable as social types.
But because his dialogue reflects everyday speech so directly, his characters often remain one-sided and superficial, parodies of real people, his work lacking dramatic tension.
His latest film, Naked, for which he won the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival, attempts to break new ground. It focuses on Johnny, an unemployed, homeless young man who is enraged at the state of humanity. It traces his nightmarish journey through the bleak landscape of down and out London. Johnny is cynical and promiscuous. He is plagued by loneliness and a sense of impotence which he tries to deal with by seeking power over a succession of women.
The film expresses a limited vision of contemporary life, in which everyone is trapped in their own despair and isolation. The idea that people can seek comfort in personal relationships or in collective action finds no echo. There is only the barest hint of human solidarity when the two women, Louise and Sophie, express a degree of mutual caring. But it is flawed by the dominant portrayal of women as the victims of men, or at least as dependent on them. Louise, Johnny’s original girlfriend, gives Sophie, with whom he has a fling, her definition of a proper relationship: ‘Living with someone who talks to you after they’ve bonked you.’
The play It’s a Great Big Shame is really two plays. The first, set in 1893 is the story of Nellie, a waif who falls in love with Jim, a drayman. But he marries a respectable, domineering shop assistant, Ada. The play opens with Nellie singing the old music hall song from which the title derives, expressing her sadness and frustration. Leigh conjures up the vibrant atmosphere of the Victorian East End, the harshness of working class life and the comfort of the pub with its cosy group life and engaging, almost Dickensian, characters. But the act is marred by an over the top ending.
The second half, set in 1993, takes place in Ada and Jim’s house. It deals with marital conflict between a young black couple. The modern version of Ada is the domineering wife Joy, who bullies her wimpish husband, egged on by her upwardly mobile sister Faith. The portrayal of Joy as a self-hater who hides behind her spectacles has strength. But the action lacks conviction and the dialogue sounds raw, like a series of actors’ improvisations.
The attempt to tie the two acts together by a final ghostly encounter between Ada and Joy is wholly unbelievable. Like Naked, this act expresses a highly pessimistic, one sided view of human relationships.
It’s a Great Big Shame plays at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East
Last updated: 1 March 2017