Into Myth

Into the West, by Greg Banks from Jim Sheridan, Travelling Light Theatre Company, The Corn Exchange, Brighton, Friday, 1 April, 7.30pm.

There is a long tradition of children's and young adults' fiction written by those close to, if not the action, at least the seat of power. Many writers, having served their countries in Intelligence, have profitably mined this particular seam; Ian Fleming and John le Carré, of course and, at an earlier stage, John Buchan, of The 39 Steps fame, and someone less well known now, Erskine Childers who wrote the boys' own adventure, The Riddle of the Sands, in the years before the First World War as something of a warning about the perceived buildup of the German navy. Arthur Ransome too, was certainly in touch with British Intelligence, even if not formally on their payroll, while he was going back and forth to Russia during the revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war.

Is this because exposure to the shadowy world of compromise, of ends justifying means, causes these writers to attempt an escape into a world of moral certainty, the kind of world which can only exist in children's books?

Jim Sheridan, who wrote the screenplay on which this play is based, is from the other side of the tracks. If the spies-come-scribblers abandoned mortal danger for the safety of the garret, Sheridan has travelled the opposite path, courting controversy and opprobrium in his choice of subject matter and approach. Like Shaw, he brings a cold rage to the project of not letting anyone get away with ignoring reality, of sweeping uncomfortable truths under any magic carpet.
That said, he's been very lucky in the writer, director and team responsible for this adaptation. Film, in many ways admirable, isn't great at imagination. That is still where theatre excels. And in this case, the imaginations in question belong to the characters, travellers, gypsies, those who may not normally be credited with anything as important as imagination, who may not normally be credited with anything beyond being a nuisance, a pest, the cause of plummeting property values.

Into the West, a revival of a much-lauded production first staged in 1994, has much terrific acting, many clever ideas, and a great score, played almost continuously on piano-accordion and guitar (not at the same time) by a single, on-stage musician. The actors speak their dialogue and narration to the music, not as song but in a kind of interaction, the music giving a spine or discipline to the story.

And where the film could only tell the story dramatically, happening once in real time, the play, in narrative style, can present the story as happening over and over, as myth, as something beyond reality.

This combination of narrative, of musical underpinning, of characters who have genuine obstacles to overcome, an honest, unadorned approach to the production and the acting, the humour, the genuine inventiveness and originality, adds up to an experience which must be something like that which audiences, in his time, felt listening to Homer.

I know, I know, now he's gone too far! But to go back to where I began, with the writers who operate in a world of certainties, moral and social, who see their work as in some way reinforcing a world view, afforded by standing on the highest point and looking down on everything else, their comfortable and cosy worlds, as attractive as they are and as much as they are loved by generations of readers, are diminished by the comparison with the kind of difficult, bottom of the heap subject matter that this story deals with, which has engendered something much more lasting, much more affecting, much more important, even though its characters and subject matter couldn't be further from the centre of power or action.

It only remains to say that Craig Edwards, who plays the horse wonderfully, not to mention the police dog, the police helicopter, the father, also the quondam King of the Gypsies, and the Grandfather, is extraordinary. Nina Logue, who plays Ally as a truly believable young girl, funny, energetic; Adam J Carpenter is a caring, long suffering, older brother and Bing Lyle is wonderful on piano accordion. Greg Banks, script adaptation and directing, has achieved something really extraordinary, but he doesn't need me to tell him. Twelve years and productions around the world are testimony to what was a genuinely wonderful evening in the theatre.

Paul Corcoran