It may be set around Christmas, with mulled wine available at the bar, but zero temperatures and frozen snow on the ground have been an unfortunate, unforeseen extra in the story of Tony Teardrop, the ambitious, site-specific work currently taking place in the Bombed Out Church.
However, for the determined audience member, making the effort to dress for the base camp of Everest rather than a night at the opera is a rewarding and thought-provoking experience.
Tony Teardrop, written by Esther Wilson, is crammed full of the realism, humour and pathos we can expect from the playwright – the pen behind Unprotected, Ten Tiny Toes, and episodes of Call the Midwife and The Accused.
It is elevated to something greater by director Jen Hayes’s Cut to the Chase Productions (Treasured, Epstein: The Man Who Made The Beatles), whose vision for the play has turned Tony Teardrop into a multi-faceted project, taking in elements of the striking photography of Lee Jefferies, which will become an exhibition in its own right; using the music of Dan Wilson and the Crucible; and setting up a number of workshops and engagement projects in the community aside from the stage show.
Tony Teardrop is based in a residential home for homeless alcoholics, with scenes also set in the Bombed Out Church (Wilson wrote the play in 2004, but this is its stage premiere). Myriddin Wannell’s set is an organic scattering of objects creating distinct areas, from the office of the residential home to the dump where Tony rummages for scrap.
The home’s no-nonsense new manager (Lisa Parry) wants Tony, and his friends Ken (Brian Dodd) and newcomer Billy (Bob Schofield) out. Case worker Karen (Laura Campbell) is fighting their corner at the cost of her disastrous personal life, but things are coming to a head. And shady character Marshy (Carl Cockram) is a reminder that ending up back on the streets is the last thing Tony needs. Former Hollyoaks actress Hollie Jay Bowes doubles up as receptionist Lisa and homeless Fran.
A remarkable central performance from Neil Bell as Tony holds the play together, stealing every scene and then some, making the stint in the cold worth the discomfort. Bell’s Tony is as sympathetic as he is unhinged, a larger-than-life figure of wonder and derision, spouting hippy philosophies as kind-hearted and well-meaning as they are bonkers. There is more to Tony than his dirty face, bloody knuckles and filthy trackie bottoms – but pushed to the limits, he is forced to become the sort of figure society would have always feared him to be.
Alongside Rene Zagger’s brilliant turn in Hope (still showing all this week at the Royal Court), it’s no stretch to say Bell, known for his work in Shane Meadows’s films among others, may also have already put in one of the performances of the year.
He ends up creating an unforgettable character an audience can genuinely care for, ramming Wilson’s point home about the importance of seeing things from a different perspective – even if it’s just moving to a bench a few feet away.
Tony Teardrop is on at the Bombed Out Church until April 6. Hot drinks are available at the venue and blankets are provided or you can bring your own.
Read MADEUP’s interview with director and producer Jen Hayes here.