Working Class dramas are almost always about aspiration, about wanting to get out, away from the circumstances in which individuals grew up to find a better, calmer, more stable life away, somewhere, perhaps anywhere else. But what happens next? Because those ties to home, to family and even to memory do not just break. Even if just for a day, eventually you always have to go back and face them all again. Anders Lustgarten’s new play The City and the Town is about that day when 13 years after he left Ben has to go home to his father’s funeral and to his older brother Magnus who he left behind. Playing for a few nights at Wilton’s Music Hall as part of a nationwide tour, Lustgarten’s play is about the confrontation between past and present, about the consequences of staying and leaving, and whether the ones who leave have any right at all to decide what happens to the ones who stay.
With Standing at the Sky’s Edge opening a couple of weeks ago, Romeo and Julie last week and now The City and the Town, there has rarely been a better time to consider how Working Class lives are being represented on stage and the more meaningful associations those experiences are being given. Centered around characters with complex interior lives in scenarios that try to steer clear of cliche and think in more rounded terms about the humanity and, crucially, the value of their subject. Too often, Working Class experiences have been represented as a singular, often homogeneous group but this new wave of work is attempting to redress the balance and to explore the many shades of experience as well as the complex challenges that ordinary people face as they try to conduct decent lives in modest circumstances.
For Lustgarten, that focus is grief, a universal human concept that makes for dramatic turning points in a character’s life as an old way of being comes to an end, a connection to the past is severed or it presents a chance for people to come together for an occasion after many years apart, whether they want to see one another or not. In this case, it reunites brothers Ben and Magnus who haven’t been in the same room or interacted for more than a decade after Ben left for a new life in London. But this is more than a tale of long-lost siblings, chalk and cheese opposites discovering they have more in common than they thought, and instead Lustgarten muses on the limitations of Working Class life and how the removal of agency from communities leads to other kinds of political expression as individuals seek more extreme means to reassert control over their lives and the way in which it has always been lived.
Some of this stems from a fear of change perhaps and the rapid acceleration of the post-industrial era where skills, education and opportunity have not evolved at an equal pace. But The Town and the City also suggests this comes from a kind of broken promise in which individuals grew up expecting to live the kind of lives their parents had, only for it to be snatched away from them, and in the end from their parents as well, when it was too late for any of them to find something else to fill the gap.
The play is, however, at its best in Act One where the story of the two brothers rediscovering who they are is most effective. The shyness of virtual strangers who have grown from boys to men with lives and responsibilities in the intervening years is well managed, especially as they both move around a complicated relationship with their father, something alluded to but never fully explained. Lustgarten’s control of conversation is extremely effective, managing flows of interaction that move smoothly from shared nostalgia and something approaching confederacy to conflicts that expose the extent of their differences now and the secrets they seem determined to keep from one another.
It is a model that Lustgarten applies across the play as discussions breed connection and then fury, with shared memories and momentary enjoyment of each other’s company and of thoughts about their younger selves only serving to remind them how much distance exists between them now. The brothers want to feel close again, to be what they once were to each other, but continually catch themselves with the fallacy of that desire as the writer effortlessly flows back into the grudges, resentments and irritations they still bear. And it is never as simple as Ben left and Magnus stayed, although that is frequently how both men chose to express it, but instead the writer notes the betrayal the siblings feel and the extent to which they view each other as symbols or proxies for wider problems in their lives and the nation. These are problems that also emerge from their masculine role models and the support for family that they both struggle to articulate.
At the centre of this is the strong absent-presence of their father and the different relationship they both had to a man who was once admired as a pillar of the community, a leader at the local factory and a strong advocate for his neighbourhood. Whether both sons felt they had to live up to or run from this mode of male behaviour is the crux of the play and drives the drama around the funeral as well as the revelations that accompany Ben and Magnus’s reunion. That both have very different opinions about who their father was, his beliefs and reactions is telling, asking how far we see heroism in father-son relationships and dismiss the parts of a parent that are too negative to reconcile with a perfected impression of them. Perhaps though, people change over time, becoming, as the urban myth suggests, more right wing as they age.
There are strong parallels here with Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s The Death of England cycle, and particularly with the opening monologue in which Michael faces his father’s, and by extension his own, demons at Alan’s funeral, confronting not only the loss he feels as a different kind of man to his father and the weakness he draws from that, but also all the contradictory things that Alan was both personally and politically. Here, Lustgarten splits that consternation between the sons, Magnus trying to be most like his father in personality and presence, claiming an ownership of the man in more recent years that he was left alone to tend to, while Ben has fled from being the same type as his father. The more political Act Two tries to explore the consequences of those choices and how far the brothers feel they measure up or even truly knew who their father was.
That comes in the form of a discussion about nationhood and changes in the last two decades for economically deprived communities who have become increasingly disenfranchised while London (the play argues) has grown richer and more middle class, prioritising the needs of the few over the many. The reality is far muddier than Lustgarten suggests, but the playwright weights the drama in favour of the local community in spite of Magnus’s alignment with supremacist groups and political extremism. The introduction of Ben’s former girlfriend Lyndsey adds a second town-based perspective that helps to explain why being left behind is so painful without the the taint of alt-right arguments. And it is clear Lustgarten is keen to show that Magnus’s approach is not the only possible outcome, hence the more reasoned but nonetheless bitter perspective that Lyndsey (Amelia Donker) represents.
This is also the only place where a female character could feasibly be inserted to provide some gender balance while giving her an independent agency that doesn’t rely on her being someone’s girlfriend or wife. Yet, it changes the dynamic of the play with some of the intricate character and relationship work of Act One dissipating slightly with the need to write for a third, unrelated person in the conversation. By extension, it surfaces those political discussions, separating them more and more from the triangle of father and sons to make bigger but more expositional points about the outlets for local dissatisfaction. Lustgarten never excuses Magnus but nor is there sufficient time in the end to really see Ben’s point of view either.
Both town characters point the finger at Ben as the root cause of all their woes, partly as someone who personally left them and as a representative of everything they deduce is economically and socially constraining them. Yet Ben never gets the opportunity to properly explain what it is like to get out and not get out at the same time – that Educating Rita and Eliza Doolittle problem of not quite belonging in either place, where characters like Ben can’t go back but they can’t always go forward either. It would have been interesting to explore some of Ben’s feelings about ‘fitting in’ in other places and whether he felt lost between the classes, an imposter of sorts ill-equipped for the life he wanted.
Designer Hannah Sibai has created a crowded living room set that suggests a particular generation and era of living where there is an unwillingness to change decor or furnishings over many years. The visible decline, dirty sofa, copious litter and stained wallpaper speak to the political rot at the the heart of the play, and nicely represents the former owner of this flat, once so meticulous about his home but as age and illness descend, no longer able to maintain it with the fastidious care that the homeliness under the grime implies. It is also a place riven with the character of a dead man, filled with his books, not all of which are far-right related, and the years of a life being packed away quickly into boxes.
Gareth Watkins’s Magnus is an interesting figure, hugely admiring of his father who he has tried to emulate but equally frustrated with his brother for forgetting about him, channeling various personal decisions and limitations of circumstance against the easy target his sibling represents. Watkins makes Magnus subtly sensitive, belying his height and physical appearance with a softness expressed through caring for his father in later years as well as the evident grief he expresses after the funeral. This noted humanity makes his later revelations and role in extremism harder to reconcile but Watkins moves the character through the story arc convincingly.
Samuel Collings’s Ben is more sympathetic in some ways, even if the writing doesn’t always allow him to be, and Collings manages the feelings of oppression that colour Ben’s return really well. The desire to be close to his brother and to understand his life is nicely contrasted by a prissiness about the surroundings and Collings does some nice physical work as his Ben refuses to let his clothes touch the various surfaces. There is regret and fear mixed in with that disdain which balances the character and Collings also takes him through a range of emotional responses as the play unfolds.
The City and the Town is a play with much to say about the contrasting experiences of Working Class lives and the responsibilities of those who leave to find ways to protect or improve things for those who stay behind. Although Act Two becomes more of a polemic than a drama, this is a meaningful piece that has more to say about the overwhelming prospect of returning to a place you never thought you would see again and the relationship between the breakdown of Working Class agency and the extreme political outlets waiting to channel all that rage into something far more dangerous.
The City and the Town was at Wilton’s Music Hall until 25 February and continues on tour until 17 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog