THEATRE / Ghosts of the present: Paul Taylor on Mike Leigh's It's a Great Big Shame at Stratford East
Friday 15 October 1993
It's a Great Big Shame takes off from the Gus Elen music-hall song of the same name, sung at the start here by the poignant waif Nellie Buckett (Kathy Burke). The lyric is a blokeish lament for the fate of a best pal, reduced to scrubbing and cleaning and other 'women's' work by his bullying shrew of a spouse. The singer would let the wife know who's boss, all right, as he explains: 'It's a great big shame, an' if she belong'd ter me, / I'd let 'er know who's who. / Naggin' at a feller wot is six foot free, / And 'er not four foot two]' Except that the drama ends with the husband driven to horrific violence, this is essentially the story of the longueur-ridden Victorian portion of the proceedings.
Making many (not so) quick changes between its various vignettes of East End life, the style of this half employs music- hall and melodrama techniques to give the past a cartoon-like distance. So when the story jumps forward a century to show a black working-class couple living in the same Stratford East house and embroiled in similar problems, the modernity of it all has an almost hallucinatory sharpness.
The differences are more of style than of substance, though, for in both halves Leigh is sending out the same depressing and condescending view of human relations. Look at how ordinary these people are, yet look at the violence that suppurates under their loveless, incommunicative marriages. Impotence is all, and because Leigh makes only perfunctory gestures towards placing their failure in a broader social context, you may feel more like voyeurs of meaningless misery than responsible witnesses to a situation that is neither arbitrary nor irremediable.
The escape clause often invoked is that it's Leigh's great strength never to generalise about human nature, as though his work just happens to be drawn again and again to the same types. Despite the fact that he has ranged out recently to cover Sydney's Greek community in Greek Tragedy and now Stratford's black population, there is something smugly similar about the worlds that have been created by this Proust of petit bourgeois banality. The joy of an otherwise disappointing evening was to see how beautifully the Theatre Royal has been restored.
Box office: 081-534 0310
The best TV shows and films coming to the servicetv
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
- 2 This restaurant has misunderstood the concept of 'cheese and biscuits'
- 3 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face death penalty
- 4 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 5 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
Game of Thrones season 5 spoilers: What we can expect according to George RR Martin's books
Spectre: Director Sam Mendes teases clips from upcoming James Bond movie
Indian Summers recommissioned: Channel 4 confirm a second series of British Empire drama
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
The Casual Vacancy finale review: Superb cast, luscious cinematography - shame about the confused ending
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut