On the surface, there should be nothing radical about Hoxton Street. It is, essentially, a soap opera set in Hoxton Street in north-east London. ‘It’s Eastenders on stage’ would be the elevator pitch.
Only it isn’t – and what appears to be conventional actually proves to be subversive.
First, unlike most conventional plays, there isn’t a single plot or even a main plot but, as with any soap opera, a number of stories that impact on, and interweave with, one another. We have a family matriarch with a scandalous past and a whopping great secret, trying to cover up her failing health; the well-meaning busybody addicted to uncovering gossip at any cost; the young couple trying to begin a relationship that is under pressure from ideas about dating outside one’s race; the yuppie lawyer who is snobbish about the locals but married to a man who has hidden his murky past from her; and the record shop owner struggling with his finances. Into this status quo appears the matriarch’s son, a former gangster who returns home from a long stretch in jail, disrupting everyone’s lives.
The acting is largely naturalistic, as you would expect to find in a soap, but almost all the scenes take place in a non-naturalistic set that consists of a simple yet imaginative set of folding panels – as the scenes change, the actors ‘turn’ the panels backwards or forwards as if they were turning the pages in a book. It’s something I’ve never seen before and, as you get used to it, proves highly effective.
The naturalism is further undercut by the appearance of the gossip at the start of the play, who addresses the audience directly and engages in banter. At the interval, the audience is asked by her to vote on which storyline they would like to follow in Act Two. Indeed, in a highly experimental approach, the play was originally episodic, with the stories told in several parts over multiple nights, but this has now been rationalised to a more practical (for theatre goers) omnibus edition that combines all the parts into a single performance.
Finally, this is, to a degree, a meta play. We have a play called Hoxton Street playing in Hoxton Hall which is on…Hoxton Street. Indeed, Hoxton Hall itself, a beautiful, 19th century music hall (and this was my first visit), is one of the sets in the play. The characters appearing before you in the theatre are intended to reflect the real-life inhabitants outside the theatre.
The consequence of all these techniques is that this play, taking place on a bare stage with a basic set, is not just more sophisticated, intellectually speaking, than any television soap, but, thanks to a live audience and theatre as its medium, can attempt things that would be actually impossible on TV.
I am not a fan of soap operas, so I confess that undiluted joy was not what I felt at the prospect of watching a two hour soap opera. To my surprise, I enjoyed the play, with each scene delivering its portion of laughs and drama, and the whole thing moving along at a fair clip.
The play’s principal strength is the very good acting, with every single character ringing true. Janet Amsden, who played the grandmother on the evening I attended, was herself was in Eastenders and gives an empathetic performance before gaining a huge laugh with her turn on a sixpence characterisation. Poppy Kay is memorable and amusing as the stiff receptionist. Cosh Omar produces a good, fiery performance as the Turkish patriarch, suffocating his son with his conservative values. Alan Turkington gives a pitch-perfect, painfully sympathetic performance as the record shop owner struggling with money problems. Carol Moses is excellent as the local busybody, and elevates all her lines with imagination and comedic timing. Tracy Anne Green and Kojo Attah turn in good performances as the aspirational lawyer and her partner with a secretive past. Merch Husey is terrific as the Turkish son under pressure for his love for a non-Turkish girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and his physical acting and mannerisms were a treat to watch. Nathan Walsh does well conveying the complex Tony, having to convince as a gangster, a damaged ex-prisoner and a concerned son. Hannah Traylen brings complexity to the put-upon Ella, with a startling ability to becomes instantly teary when the lines demand it. Finally, there is Helen Pearson, another Eastenders veteran, who is ever-fascinating as the seen-it-all, feisty matriarch who masks her vulnerability, and has to run the whole gamut of emotions as the emotional centre of the play.
well-structured, with distinctive characters, engaging dialogue and plenty of drama, revelations, emotions and laughs.
Amy Yardley‘s design cleverly turns the stage – and budget – limitations to advantage, with each set almost a collaged poster of reality. Karena Johnson‘s direction is fluid and fresh, varying the scenes to keep the narrative rolling along.
Writers Oladipo Agboluaje and Lil Warren have created a good script that knowingly adheres to the conventions of a soap opera. While the play doesn’t really have anything to say beyond spinning a yarn, it’s well-structured, with distinctive characters, engaging dialogue and plenty of drama, revelations, emotions and laughs.
The script is to be applauded for having almost every character belonging to the working-class. Being working-class myself, the lack of working-class characters and stories on the London stage is scandalous and unacceptable. The predominance of middle-class and upper-class playwrights means that working-class characters are either simply deleted from stories, or are lazily lumped into one of two camps – extras in the stories of posh people or members of a feral underclass. Even though there are recognisable archetypes in the story, Hoxton Street nevertheless presents a diversity of believable, working-class people, each trying to cope in their different ways with life in a society constructed to obstruct them. Indeed, the play is part of Hoxton Hall’s #CLASS season, examining class in modern London.
The only real negatives to the play are that the ending is, perhaps, too abrupt and that not all the character arcs are brought to satisfying conclusions. In fact, in keeping with its soap opera approach, the whole thing feels like the first part of something larger.
Hoxton Street is an enjoyable look at working-class life in Hoxton through a conventional soap opera idiom, yet this familiar construction turns out, in a number of respects, to be more experimental than many consciously radical plays.
Disclaimer: Writer Lil Warren directed one of my own plays, ‘Sorry, My Compassion Is On The Blink’, at the Pleasance Theatre in 2019. I attended the performance of Hoxton Street through a complimentary ticket.