So we waved our hands as we marched along
And the people smiled as we sang our song
And the world was saved as they listened to the band
And the Banner-Man held the banner high…
Glory, glory, glory…
Blue Mink – The Banner Man
First performed in 1970, Tricia Thorns’ revival of Philip King’s Go Bang Your Tambourine is remarkably the first time the play has ever been performed in London. The play begins with 19-year-old David Armstrong (Sebastian Calver) arriving home after the funeral of his mother. In tow is his father Thomas Armstrong (John Sackville) – nothing unusual about that you might say, except that we find Thomas has been estranged from son and former wife.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact mother and son were/are members of the Salvation Army. Concerned for David’s welfare, ‘Major’ Webber (Patience Tomlinson) checks in on him, to make sure that he’s not ‘marinating’ in his grief, and suggest that she knows a suitable young man who’d make a suitable lodger and companion. But happenstance (or perhaps the answer to ‘prayer’) brings the experienced Bess Jones (Mia Austen) to his doorstep – a catalyst for all manner of changes in David…
In some ways Go Bang Your Tambourine is a play of its time, capturing the ambience of living in a Lancashire town at the beginning of the 1970s. While the Salvation Army is arguably not as great a presence in the high street and public consciousness as it was decades ago, even when the play was set, the dichotomy between secular Britain and its former observance of religious rituals and rhetoric was keenly felt.
Through Thomas, we feel the tension between a life unemcumbered by rules or guilt, and his ‘kith and kin’ whose willingness to wholeheartedly devote most of their free time to affilated religious activities leaves little time for a normal life – or relationships.
The real crux of the play though is the reasons for why David’s parents separated. Thomas blames it squarely on his wife’s gradual metamprohosis from being a woman to a ‘cypher’ – whose whole identity revolved around her newfound life. David puts the counter-argument that it was his father’s infidelity that ‘drove’ his mother to find solace in religion – that and the fact that Thomas allegedly took pleasure from belittlling his wife at any given opportunity. Both points of view are probably true, each person’s behaviour reinforcing the other – an ouroborous.
Comparisons can be drawn between this play and others from/about the same era such as Equus, Brimstone and Treacle, East Is East, which deal with amongst other things the religious facet of identity and what society deems unhealthy or excessive. And while Bill Noughton’s Alfie showed the moral repercussions of being ‘a man of the world’, David is the polar opposite. Capable and mature in his everyday life, as a by-product of his sheltered experiences, David has much to learn about the contradictory desires of the human heart. From a psychological perspective, the dynamics of the Armstrong family is the stuff of Greek legends: a son who is overly close to his mother, a father who wants to obliterate his kin and a son who wants to rid himself of his father – permanently…
Perhaps the key to understanding Go Bang Your Tambourine is its historical roots. After successive positive changes in society during the 1960s, the subsequent decade was the ‘hangover’, when discontentment was rife and optimism was replaced with cynicism. Nobody is completely happy in the play and each person wrestles with their past, how others perceive them and how well (or not) they understand themselves.
Much like Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle, the consequences of being ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the play are not so clear cut, and while there is no one, overriding message, the characters who are more ‘fluid’ in their outlook are ‘better equipped’ to deal with ‘developments’ and the future. But while David is in some ways ‘undeveloped’ and at a ‘disadvantage’, at the end of the day, if Bill Noughton’s ‘Alfie Elkins’ abandoned you and your mother, how do you think that would shape you as a person?
© Michael Davis 2019
Go Bang Your Tambourine runs at Finborough Theatre until 31st August.