Such is the lack of dramatic or emotional coherence, The Past Is A Tattooed Sailor might just as easily be called The Present Is A Non-Tattooed Labourer. Simon Blow’s semi-autobiographical play riffs on the notoriety of Stephen Tennant, one of the Young Bright Things, and includes gay themes, ghosts, artistic temperaments and a focus on class struggles. Unfortunately, it never decides what it wants to be and the audience is none the wiser at final curtain.
“I had a complex childhood – not easy – I lost both my parents and an inheritance at an early age. With it went my paternal home. Having no home can have a lasting effect – hence I dislike the ‘cathartic’. You never recover from certain events, and it would take an insensitivity I do not posses to do so.
When I met my great-uncle Stephen Tennant – Uncle Napier here – I felt I had come to the home that had long ago gone. I learnt about his exotic past from him as if it were still there – and a lot else, too, as this drama reveals. So it seemed natural that I should write a play about our relationship. I have also done what he once asked of me: ‘You promise you won’t forget me when I’m gone'”
These are the words of Simon Blow, whose play, The Past Is A Tattooed Sailor, is now playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre in a production directed by Jeffrey Mayhew. These words promise an intriguing and potentially revelatory script about times gone by as well as, perhaps, times present.
The reality is somewhat different.
Blow’s narrative is almost entirely incoherent and startlingly dull. Whatever the truth about Stephen Tennant and his association with Blow, The Past Is A Tattooed Sailor gives no proper insight into Tennant’s life, loves or ambitions and, more egregiously, is not dramatically satisfying in any way.
More than anything else, Blow needs to engage a talented dramaturg. The work needs a fresh, independent, unconnected eye – and a way needs to be found to tell whatever story there is to tell in a coherent and fascinating way.
As it stands, the text affords no possibilities for even highly qualified and experienced actors. There is simply no way to make Blow’s script sing or soar. No gifted director can wave a magic wand to fix the inherent problems.
That said, Mayhew exacerbates the problems rather than attempts to solve them. No illuminating vision embraces this production. There are awkward settings, awkward scene changes, awkward characters, awkwardly staged confrontations and intimacies and awkward drama. Nothing about the direction solves any of the problems Blow creates in his play.
The device of the ghosts is especially problematic in this production. They don’t adhere to a specified convention, they don’t seem of their time, and there is nothing ethereal or, frankly, ghostly about them. They can be seen by different people at different times, but there is no through line.
A strong gay theme permeates the entire production – even in relation to apparently straight characters (Marcus/Patrick). Uncle Napier’s mother strikes one as potentially gay; that is not about the actor, it is about the way the role is written and directed here.
None of the performances sparkle as they could or should. The main burden lies with Bernard O’Sullivan who plays Uncle Napier, but he does not make the character throb with electric interest. It needs a bravura turn, but O’Sullivan falls far short of that standard.
There is no way to avoid the fact that there is a lot of bad acting on show here. Denholm Spurr is the one exception. He does his best – and he works very hard – to make his character, Damien, the rough trade gay lover of the central character, Joshua (Jojo Macari) believable and intriguing. He rises above the dreadful dialogue and crude scenes, making Damien an interesting character.
Even so, at the end of Act One, Spurr is required to do something which seems utterly out of character and bizarre. Despite his commitment, Spurr cannot make that moment work – another nail in the coffin for Blow’s vision of this play.
That said, he is the only actor asked to play more than one role who succeeds in that endeavour. His French prostitute sailor, Jean Baptiste, is very different from his cocky defensive labourer, Damien. Other actors cannot manage to effectively portray one character, let alone two.
Rosie Mayhew’s set design promises more than the production actually delivers, and, in the end, proves cumbersome and contributes to long scene changes. Sam Waddington’s lighting design works well in some cases, but not in others; very much a curate’s egg. Jack Lord’s sound design is quite effective.
Kudos to The Old Red Lion Theatre for taking a punt on a new play. It’s a pity that The Past Is A Tattoed Sailor did not deliver as a dramatic work. There is a good play lurking at the edges here, but someone other than Blow needs to breathe life into it.