Valentine’s Day is upon us, so it’s no surprise the Network Theatre is only sparsely filled. Outside, couples rush to dinner reservations. In the theatre, only a quarter of the seats are occupied for tonight’s production of Tobacco Road. This is Incognito Theatre Company’s first foray into original material, having previously produced All Quiet on the Western Front and an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector.
The play opens at the close: five gang members on the brink of execution. But for what? To learn their story, we step back in time two years, to 1918. The troupe breaks the fourth wall – a narrative move that feels more forced than considered. Speaking to the audience, they weave a story of young men returning home from war to find a lack of opportunity in the streets of south London; women who worked through the war have lost their jobs and status. We’re told of London’s intricate gang network and our characters’ plans to carve out a name for themselves amongst the societal rubble of post-war England. The set-up is promising.
The show isn’t without triumphs, some notable. The minimal set design – just seven wooden crates – is used efficiently. The choreography is compelling – a long, white elastic cloth acts as a mesmerisingly innovative boxing ring (enwrapping the gang’s prize fighter), then later as a telephone line connecting two interlocutors of a sinister call. The female perspective on post-war promises is refreshing. And even the actors’ switching roles every five seconds to portray a constellation of characters works well to keep the pace.
The issue lies in the reason behind the pacing. Overall, there’s a sense of desperation in Tobacco Road, an and then story: this happened, and then this, and then this… To fit the gang’s two-year rise to power into one show is overly ambitious – it results in a lack of depth. When death comes, inevitable in a gang story, it falls flat.
For a company just starting out producing original material, these shortcomings aren’t shocking. We can foresee a time when Incognito produces a striking show. It’s just not there yet. Tobacco Road feels derivative – an hour-long theatre spin-off of Peaky Blinders (from which it borrows heavily for its themes, soundtrack and, oddly, character names). A harsher critic might say that to call it original material is a stretch; but Tobacco Road, despite its downsides, has moments of rewarding creativity.
Photo: Tim Hall
Tobacco Road is at Network Theatre from 13th until 17th February 2019. For further information or to book visit the show’s festival page here.
Read more reviews from our Vault Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Vault Festival website here.