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THEATRE / Ghosts of the present: Paul Taylor on Mike Leigh's It's a Great Big Shame at Stratford East

Mike Leigh's new play has a split historical location, which is a departure for him, and you feel that his famous improvisatory methods must have been really up against it with the first half, set in 1893. Leigh is noted for sending his actors out on to the streets 'in character', but it would surely be fruitless to sally forth into the community posing as a Victorian 'trouncer', or fourth-class drayman. The 'feedback' might well be a fist in the face.

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.

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