We Anchor In Hope (Bunker Theatre)

We Anchor in Hope (The Bunker Theatre, until October 19th)

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Leading 18th century writer, Samuel Johnson, once said, “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern.”

Whether you’re popping down to the local for a swift half, settling down for G&T and chat, joining the tribe to watch football on the large-screen TV, screeching through ear-splitting karaoke, or taxing your brains at a quiz night there’s nothing quite like the pub on the corner or in the secluded village to bring people together and warm the senses.

At the constantly stimulating and risk-taking Bunker Theatre a new play We Anchor In Hope is a modern masterpiece which both makes a plea for local pubs and small businesses and understands how important such meeting places are for those who go there. It is rich, funny and heartfelt and it is unquestioningly one of the best things ever produced at the small Southwark venue.

At a time when more and more pubs are closed to make way for supermarket express stores, classy restaurants and luxury flats Anna Jordan’s dark comedy drama couldn’t be more relevant. It captures a moment in history while unashamedly exploring wider topics of love, life, relationships, memory, age and the joy of booze.

Jordan was commissioned by the Royal Court in 2016 to visit a variety of pubs, buy people drinks, and feel herself part of the community, then to write something which reflected the high and low points of local pub life. It might sound like a jolly good excuse for a pub crawl, but the result is something far more full-bodied than could have been expected, and is a worthy follow-up to Yen, her hard-hitting 2013 play about childhood and growing up.

We Anchor In Hope is a mature work that draws believable characters, focuses on key social issues such as austerity and housing without ever becoming overly political or preachy and cross-examines the true nature of nostalgia. It is more than just a group of people raising their glasses at the call of “last orders” – it is a brooding threnody for sanctuaries lost at the hands of crawling development.

An extraordinarily well-cast five actors portray the lives of regulars in a pub on its last night before being closed for good. There are lots of laughs, sadness as individuals realise they have to leave this haven for the real world and some profound soliloquies which are beautifully poetic and uncommonly heart-wrenching.

The versatile theatre space has been transformed into a functioning pub for the production, an impressively authentic design by Zoe Hurwitz with old balloons, beer bottles and crisp packets scattered around the room. For an hour before the show audiences can buy drinks pulled by the theatre’s artistic director Chris Sonnex (who also directs this play) and its general manager or play pool and on some evenings there are after-show opportunities to join in a quiz night, a karaoke evening or a disco.

Sonnex, who grew up in Pimlico where the play is set, directs with real understanding of the crucial importance of the local pub to a small community and he picks up the urgency of matters needing to be resolved for the characters on the brink of a life-changing event. It is bang up to date (there are swear boxes for use of the “B” and “T” words – references to a British debate and an American politician never out of the news at present) but at its heart it is a reminiscence, a recollection of how this simple community building became an escape route from the raw intensity of troubled times.

We are treated to one of the best casts on stage anywhere this year, playing characters who all shrink from the knowledge that life beyond the pub doors is tough and unyielding. Jordan draws each meticulously, the subtle shades allowing them all to come to life and grow throughout the play. Their shared experience is all about loss – but their mutual hope is of survival.

Bar girl Pearl is played with a feisty innocence by Alex Jarrett with an eye on rugged Irishman Shaun, a lovably roguish Alan Turkington, locked into a marriage that is going nowhere; there is an irony to the fact that this scaffolder is working on the huge and sprawling Battersea Power Station development along the river at Nine Elms, seeking refuge in a pub about to become victim to similar evolution. Barman and dogsbody Bilbo (so named because of his passion for The Lord of the Rings) is a young man, played with anguish by Daniel Kendrick, who life has aged before his time and trying to escape an unkind past by finding a home at the pub, while the landlord Kenny is played with patient resignation by a spirited Valentine Hanson, his recollection being of the nightmare events of the 7/7 London terrorist attack and how the pub served as a support and liberation from shocking reality.  Completing the line-up is the terrific David Killick as urbane Frank, a sprightly septuagenarian who has been one of the mainstays of the establishment for years and now hides a tragic domestic secret.

It is to the credit of this production and its creative team that we utterly believe the set up and the characters’ stories. We smile and sigh at the ever so slightly out of date music, the wistfulness for what was and what may never be, the remorseless advance of modern life that strips away the things that really matter.

While there are degrees of genuine sadness and hopelessness Jordan has also ensured the play is uplifting and leaves us confident that these personable characters will stay in touch and rebuild relationships forged in the saloon bar. This Anchor is truly a place of hopes and dreams being ignited and while it may not have a storybook ending,  you can’t help but feel that sorrows will continue to be drowned somewhere and optimistic chapters will continue to be written.

David Guest

Images, Helen Murray

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com/

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