Magazine article The Spectator

Boxing Fever

Magazine article The Spectator

Boxing Fever

Article excerpt


Golden Boy (Southwark Playhouse)

No Place Left for the Heroes (Union Theatre, Southwark)

Boxing fever

Sheridan Morley

You wait several decades for a play about boxing and then two open not only in the same week, but on the fringe in the same small area of Southwark. Unseen in London for almost 20 years, Clifford Odets's Golden Boy comes back to us now as a sharp reminder that there was great American playwriting after O'Neill and before Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Golden Boy dates from Broadway 1937, where it made Odets's name and moved him to Hollywood where he died in 1963, broken by the McCarthy anti-communist hearings and yet still working on the play, but this time as a musical for Sammy Davis, who then played it all around the world, albeit not very well.

It's the poetic yet deeply grainy and realistic tale of a boy from the backstreets of New York who has to choose between being a violinist or a boxer; he chooses the ring, only to wind up dead in a car crash after he has sold his soul and his real talent to a corrupt ringside mafia which fights below the belt.

Sure the story creaks a little, and nowadays a television writer would doubtless do it all in about 50 minutes instead of the three long hours of Isabel Lynch's new production at the Southwark Playhouse, where it has to be said that on the night I went the cast of 15 came perilously close to outnumbering those of us in the audience.

Lynch's is a desperately overlong and overwrought production, with an entire boxing ballet to open and close, and actors mostly in deep trouble with their American accents. But consider this: they are working on the far side of Southwark Bridge and will be lucky if they get their travel expenses back, let alone a salary. Yet we now leave it to dedicated bands of fringe theatre players to do the work for which our subsidised companies were funded; the National did indeed do Golden Boy back in 1983, but since then they have ignored Odets just as they have ignored virtually every mainstream writer of the late Thirties and Forties and early Fifties. Nowadays, to grab the attention of major companies, a play has to be very old or very young, and of instant appeal to some young Hollywood-bound director who happens to want to make his name on the back of it. Odets has somehow fallen out of fashion and favour among any managements rich enough to do him justice, here and or his native New York, and the loss is theirs as well as ours.

Yet this patchy revival reminds us of just how great a writer he was, arguably the most important theatrical poet after Synge and O'Neill; as with them, he never writes a five-minute speech when a 15-minute one will do as well, and his characters are usually stereotypes of the faithful girl, the crooked promoter, the noble father. …

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