The Poetry of Exile, White Bear Theatre – Review

The person who is slightly out of step with the rest of the world is nothing new in literature. In Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger) this realisation was accompanied by the anti-hero’s sense of nausea and revulsion, while for Philip K Dick, it was seeing the sinister in the everyday things  –  the status quo using the trappings of the benign to monitor and control the masses… More closer to home, ‘The Man Apart’ is at the centre of  Peter Hamilton’s absurdist comedy The Poetry Of Exile at the White Bear Theatre. At the centre of this comedy is Rob (Charles Sandford), a driving instructor from Romford. By his own admission he is self-absorbed – a point of pride in fact. His passion, however, is blowing bubbles…

Evelyn Craven and Charles Sanford

When we first hear about Rob, it is actually from his wife Lynn (Jemma Burgess) who confides in her sister Josie (Carla Freeman) about her marriage. Neither sister is totally happy with their spouse, but for Lynn the overriding concern is being still not pregnant, despite trying for kids with Rob. He won’t see a doctor about his fertility as he thinks that conflicts with his Roman Catholic upbringing, leaving Lynn at her wit’s end. Meanwhile Rob, who has had a zero pass rate for all of his driving pupils, takes on undergraduate Mary-Jane (Evelyn Craven) who shares his philosophical views of the world and love of the existentialism of Chinese poetry. Asides from reawakening his teenage interest in verse, Mary-Jane is living proof that he is not totally unique in the universe – that she is in fact his soul-mate…

As you would expect with a play that deals with perceptions of the world, it draws its inspiration from many recognisible sources. The idea of having a driving instructor who has a life-changing reaction to one of his pupil can be traced to Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, though the ingenuity in Hamilton’s writing is to give a wholly-positive spin to this episode. Mary-Jane and Rob are the lucky ones, finding something in poetry a fufilling means of expression and meaning. In a world of shades of grey, they have found vibrant colour. As for the blowing of bubbles… well, the allure to this ephemeral activity can be likened to the floating plastic bag scene in American Beauty. Or Rob just likes blowing bubbles…

The Poetry of Exile plays on the fact that Rob feels estranged living in Romford (Hey, wouldn’t anybody?) Heck, even Josie wants to move away from there and live in France. But for Lynn and Greg (Josie’s husband), a life of domesticity in suburbia with someone who truly loves them is all they need or want. With the right person, life doesn’t need to be more profound or aspirational than this.

Of course,  Hamilton plays devil’s advocate too, showing how tolerant (or not) the outside world is towards Rob. For my money’s worth, I thought some of the play’s funniest moments involved Rob’s interactions on social media, with Josie Ayers as the Civil Service (a.k.a @WhoreofBabylon) forever trying to recruit him, as well the acerbic ‘Ricky’ whose catchphrase made me laugh every time.

Carla Freeman: Marsha

There’s a touch of Douglas Adams’ wit in Hamilton’s writing, having the key to inner contentment and the secrets of the universe lie within the most mundane of activities. While Josie’s interest in the horticultural aspect of vinyards is on the surface admirable, it is in truth a sublimated extension of her dependency on alcohol, not unlike that of the comedic Marsha Klein in the classic sitcom Spaced. For all of her talk about not caring about drifting apart from Greg, somewhere deep within Josie she is deeply unhappy…

The use of tableaus by director Ken McClymont –  the stereotype of a group of trainspotters huddled together in anaroks and binoculars – remind the audience of how much an anomoly Rob’s existence is to contemporary society. The sad thing for Rob is that he was born in the wrong century. Had he been born at a time where it was possible to cut ties with most of the world and lived for all intents and purposes a hermit, his ‘odd’ behaviour would have been tolerated. Solitude then wasn’t the anathema it now is to 21st century living.

© Michael Davis 2017


The Poetry of Exile runs at the White Bear Theatre until 22nd April 2017

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