It seems amazing that this play has rested in a drawer for more than 40 years. Its writer, Michael Hastings died in 2011 after a distinguished career as a dramatist and Southwark Playhouse deserves congratulation for rescuing a work which, if nothing more, serves as an important document of London’s working class history. In fact, it is much more. Tricia Thorns’ steadily paced, impeccably acted production is set in the work room of a Savile Row tailor between 1953 and 1955. It reminds somewhat of Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen, revived at The National a while back, in that it shows us the work ethic and working conditions of a bygone era. Alex Marker’s set is so vivid and detailed that, sitting three rows back, I half expected to be taken to task for slacking. The play’s dramatic tension arises from the conflict of old school hand stitching craftsmanship, as represented by the ageing Spijak (Andy de la Tour), and modern, quick turnaround machine stitching as advocated by Eric (Paul Rider). Each has a “kipper” (tailoress) – Sydie (Alexis Caley) is Spijak’s daughter and Iris (Abigail Thaw) dotes on Eric, who is probably gay. De la Tour’s deeply moving performance is mesmerising; a Polish Jew, Spijak stands defiantly in the path of modernisation and what he sees as diminishing standards of workmanship; he can often be found on a ledge beneath a work bench, sleeping off a hangover and he sums up his philosophy with “(the) day you start looking for happiness (is the) day you start dying…”; left alone in the work place over Christmas, he delivers a soliloquy in the form of a conversation with his dead wife, which leaves the audience in stunned silence. Spijak’s new apprentice Maurice arrives at the beginning of the play to face merciless bullying as he learns the intricate details of his craft and a quietly impressive performance by James El-Sharawy reveals his resilience and determination to master all the old skills and blend them into the changing work environment. Maurice spends his lunch hours locked in the toilet, writing a play about his experiences; he is, of course, Hastings himself. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this superb production is that Hastings’ commitment to the craft of playwriting was as steadfast as that of Spijak to tailoring.
Performance date: 13 March 2015