In Jack Shepherd’s seminal play In Lambeth, revolutionary ideas collide with art under the auspices of a secluded family home. In a roundabout way, Shepherd returns to similar themes in his latest play The Cutting Edge, but from a different tact.
Seven years ago, Chris (David Surzaker) and Anna (Jasmine Hyde) left the ‘rat face’ to live in the countryside, subsisting on home-grown food. So far, so very much like The Good Life. Instead of having ‘Margot’ and ‘Jeremy’ as neighbours, Anna and Chris have Peter (James Clyde), a widower who is a perennial presence in the kitchen. The arrival of Elvira (Maggie Steed) – a former socialite and one of the bohemian ‘bright young things’ popularised by Evelyn Waugh and William Somerset Maugham – tests Anna’s patience to the limit, as well as triggering in-depth conversations about the ‘meaning of it all’…
With its gentle introduction to the lives of Anna and Chris, The Cutting Edge takes its time setting up the play’s themes, so much more than the obvious graft involved in living ecologically-responsible lives. However, we see that the couple’s attempts to be self-sufficent have been an uphill struggle, as the land they work on isn’t ‘receptive’ to growing crops – an apt metaphor for Chris’ burnt out disposition. This dovetails into the constant attempt by others to coax Chris back into the lucrative field of art critcism again. But just like the barren land that the couple work on, Chris has neither the will nor the creative wherewithal to write about his former field of expertise.
Maggie Steed’s character is much like her namesake in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, a former resident whose presence is a catalyst for questions about the past and present. While Elvira’s ‘predeliction’ for ‘pushing the envelope’ of ‘acceptable behaviour’ is amusing, we realise deep down that her ‘taking liberties’ would be a nightmare to deal with in real life, pushing the ‘British reserve’ to the limits. With Zac (Michael Feast) a former ‘rock star’ in tow who has ‘challenging points of view’, the visting couple stir up the sediment of horticultural dissatisfaction.
There are within the play allusions to – or at least elements analogous to – Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Firstly there is Peter’s relationship with the couple. Much like ‘Dr. Rank’ with ‘Torvald and Nora’, Peter has gravitated from being Chris’ ‘friend’ to being Anna’s constant companion… Then there are the ‘sacrifices’ that both wives made for their husbands. Nora borrows money so Torvald can convalesce in warmer climates, while Anna’s left the world of art criticism to join Chris’ emotional convalescence.
Chris’ speech about attributing meaning to art (whether it’s real or imagined) is the crux of his crisis of faith, and his ambivalence about lending his gift as as wordsmith to projects unworthy of comment – a conundrum familiar to anyone who writes about the Arts. The fact that Zac reduces Chris’ angst to a ‘First World’ problem, that art in general as the province of the monied, educated classes unleashes a hornet’s nest of ill-feeling…
It’s one thing to wax lyrical about the semantics of art, but do we care for the characters in general? Certainly Hyde’s Anna coaxes the lion’s share of sympathy from the audience, as she gives practical and emotional support to Chris, as well as keeping her exasperation in check while fulfilling the duties of a hospitable host.
It is, however, in one of Elvira’s speeches that perhaps we find closure in the play. Modern art tries to convey the experience of seeing something, rather than a faithful facsimile of an object. Likewise, art in all its forms is about the importance of the human experience, rather than an end in itself. While Elvira’s message is at times obfuscated by her general behaviour, this figure from a bygone era has much to teach about ‘Carpe Diem’. Even a clock that has stopped is correct twice a day…
© Michael Davis 2020
The Cutting Edge runs at Arcola Theatre, London until 21st March.