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Royal Duchess Superstore at Half Moon Theatre

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by Chris Henniker (subscribe)
There are 6m postcodes in London, what's happening in yours?
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When you think of a play involving gangsters, you think of Brecht's Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui. East End Wide Boys, you think Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. But the Royal Duchess Superstore muscles in on this turf with a visceral story about the relationships between an East End Wide Boy, his misses and the new Bengali street hustlers taking over.

The play opens to Sympathy For The Devil and an ageing Wide Boy, Terry (played by Mark Wingett ), giving a hilarious stand up routine about IKEA and the absurdity of going to New York for a bargain when you fork out £400 for the plane tickets. The humour sours when Terry talks about "Pakis", where it felt like something was stripped away and the "truth" was told and it felt like an aging National Front member ranting about the past. Not that terry is any more racist than anyone else of his generation, more that he's spent eleven years in prison for a crime he doesn't tell us about and struggles to adjust to the new regime. The fact he lives above The Royal Duchess, a pub converted into a "paki corner shop" on Commercial Road, puts paid to the assumption that he is racist per se. Rather, that things have changed. For instance, the shop is the centre of a drug dealing operation that Dave supervises. Indeed, I am sometimes approached by drug dealers when walking down the Commercial Road, to which I refuse. Nothing changes there.

The key theme on the play is relationships and how they change. Terry's relationship with his common-law wife, Julie (played by Wendy Morgan) has gone cold and she effectively trades him in for a younger model, Freddie, the son of Terry's late friend. Julie is used by the writer, Jonny O'Neill, to poke fun at the hypocrisy of trading a wife for a younger model because Terry served his sentence at the time. Their relationship is more interesting when Julie says that Freddie is like the son they never had, which is an excuse for Terry to lay into him because he thinks he's sleeping with her. The irony that he could have been their son is lost on Terry and this could be seen as displaced domestic violence. Terry's relationship with the area has changed, as the pubs have closed and become cafés or shops, private houses and even art galleries.

The visceral nature of Wingett's performance really shows the bloodshed inherent in the East End Underworld behind the "diamond geezer" image they may try and project. Indeed, Terry headbutts Freddie, only to act like a child when he tells Julie his hand may have been broken. Previously, Terry tells the shopkeeper, Dave that his hand is OK when he suggests that he should take that to the drop-in clinic. This macho attitude with a male is diametrically opposed to the wanting to be cared for by Julie, who puts him right. This idea around "face" is in someways punctured by Terry's two-faced dealings with people. Not in the sense of hypocrisy, but more in the sense of what's best at getting results.

The best thing about this play is that it really is a product of the old East End, as opposed to a soap opera that we know and... That I will leave to your opinion. The street names mentioned are real ones on The Isle of Dogs, such as Manchester Road, Commercial Road, the number 25 bus to Oxford Street, but the play never degenerates into cliche. It doesn't go into Cockney rhyming slang, which is archaic, but rejects the emerging London Multicultural English that encompasses Jamaican Patois, Ebonics, Bengali, medical slang , text speak and Arabic, among others. That said, O'Neill has really captured a part of London that is in transition as it becomes gentrified and how people's relationships change it does so. He captures it in a way that is filthy, funny and a bloody good time, but don't get your lights punched out.
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When: The Royal Duchess Superstore playing from 9-21st September 2014
Where: Half Moon Theatre, White Horse Road Limehouse
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