“Welcome to the new nostalgia.”
Ben Rodwell, Remote Goat
Substance and Shadow remind me of Gore Vidal’s thoughts on the success of friends. It doesn’t look like they’ll ever put a foot wrong or take a step backward – their work seems to exhibit nothing but creative progress. Even when, as in this case reviving a show they’ve played before.
I did see Skin Deep the first time around, it was excellent then and it is now. The temptation must be great, when reviving a previous success to do the same again, but not for these guys the comfort of regurgitated success; this is also new. A fresh scene has appeared in which Nana Combes provides satisfying closure to a previously disturbing story.
The show opens with a tableaux of the four main characters of the story in a fine display of teenagerly posing. Jem: anarchist, bad boy, skinhead, rebel. Alex: smart, dandy, fashionable, disco king, drainpipe jeans and a pork pie hat. Biro: nervous, introverted, withdrawn. Pearl: classic truculent female. Each has their own chair, their own domain – only Jem seems intent on spilling out of his. Behind them stand clothes racks festooned with the fashions of the times. This is the late 70s Ska and 2 tone explosion. Substance and Shadow make very effective use of both tableaux and soliloquy throughout the play – a technique I can find distracting rather than effective unless done very well; as it is here where it is both effective and affecting.
And the story begins. For me Skin Deep is the story of the poor, naïve innocent Biro, – persecuted by brother, the slick poseur, Alex, patronised by his hero, the wrong un, Jem and enslaved by the beauty and sas of, the superficial, Pearl – how his life is changed by the return of Jem from London, the growing differences between Jem and Alex and the discovery of the events at the queens jubilee party.
Jem’s return sparks a flood of nostalgia for his home town – a theme that runs throughout the play – and while I arrived too late to remember Routes nightclub, the Acorn or Tony Kellow I well Remember childhood visits to Pram and Toy – origin of my first Cowbow outfit, skateboard and set of Dungeons and Dragons, happy days; and of course Truman’s on Fore Street which was truly remarkable and seemed to last forever.
Sour gobbets soon rise to the surface in the group following the homecoming. Jay has changed. He s aggressive, racist, violent rude – all the classic skinhead traits we deplore. Alex has however grown into a much more ‘normal’ balanced child of his time, providing a welcome reminder that, among the yoof there is an alternative to the objectionableness of Jem. Pearl is basically a normal young woman, she doesn’t share Jem’s views but likes the look, it makes her feel powerful and gives her an identity. She seems quite oblivious to the effect the appearance of this confident, ballsey exotic girl has on Biro and his limited, innocent existence. How much will his imagined love colour Biro’s actions when he discovers that despite the seemingly unbridgeable divide growing between Alex and Jay they have a common memory of the Jubilee celebrations that both unites and divides them.
The previously shocking climax of Skin Deep is rounded and given depth by the addition of Nana Combes’ soliloquy Delivered Brilliantly by Tracey Norman. A very welcome addition to an already excellent play.
If, and it is a massive if, anything prevented this from being really top class theatre it is that the language, wonderfully written as it is (Pearls opening speech is really quite poetic), was once or twice (only once or twice) I little too much for the actors’ mouths. Also, some of the rhetorical points made – valuable points with which I agree – can seem a little overdone; but it’s easy for me to say ‘I already think this’ while forgetting that the characters here are just working it out.
If you haven’t seen Skin Deep and you get the chance, go. I hope it comes round again ang when it does I’m sure there will be more depth, more creativity and more success than ever.