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29 October 2014
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Friday, 13 June, The Crucible, Sheffield
Review: The Modernists
The Modernists: Orlando Wells as Clifford and Jesse Spencer as Terrance
Collars cut to the inch, scooters on stage - Oonagh Jaquest saw Jeff Noon's The Modernists at the Crucible, and found it engaging and hypnotic...
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The Modernists is on at the Crucible until 21 June.

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Oonagh Jaquest by BBC South Yorkshire's
Oonagh Jaquest

Girls can't escape the 1950s this summer - pointy flats in primary colours, prom skirts and flower prints, halternecks and waspish waists.

The past is our playground and fashion never tires of plundering it for a spot of instant attitude.

Who needs a point of view when they can be Sandra Dee by day and fast forward to Nico by nightfall?

Step forward Jeff Noon's four charming men of Soho in 1962. They're suited, they're booted, they're self-made men, they're The Modernists.

Dedicated followers of fashion would come later: these fine dandies are style leaders, making up the rules as they go along, always ahead of the game, which for them started sometime in the late 50s.

Paul Popplewell as Leon
Paul Popplewell as Leon

But will they survive when fashion catches up with them? As the play opens, it is already snapping at the heels of their handmade brogues.

The Crucible, where this story of post-war manhood premieres as part of the Sheffield First new writing season, has always been a flexible and open space.

For this production, designer Simon Higlett has excelled himself in bringing the outside in and re-creating the back streets of Soho with deceptively simple realism.

It did feel huge - certainly big enough for a scooter to be ridden on-stage without the least feeling of theatricality. Hell, I even expected one of the characters to trip over an alley-cat on its way back from dallying on a hot tin roof.

The world inhabited by the play's four characters is, as Noon says "dark and grim" - as the evening progresses it dawns on me that despite the current vogue for the period, I know nothing about these young men's heyday.

quote Designer Simon Higlett excelled himself in recreating the back streets of Soho with deceptively simple realism quote
- Oonagh Jaquest

Buddy Holly has had his short day in the sun, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman have brought Tennessee Williams' dysfunctional Southern family to the silver screen a few years previously - but all that is American.

Back in Blighty the war is over but a whole generation of fatherless men don't have a clue who they are and are in the process of inventing themselves from scratch.

The beauty of this play is that everything rests on what band members Vincent, Clifford, Terrance and Leon say about themselves. Their elaborate parlance is all - and it's not just idiosyncratic, it is poetic, even biblical at times - as one character even admits.

Many women complain that men just don’t talk - well these men don't talk either. They declaim, they embroider. In two minutes I caught a 'cocky little slant', a 'besmirch', a 'yea' and a 'yonder'.

And the suits, ah the suits. Vincent and Clifford, the alpha males of the group are very concerned with what 'befits' them.

The lapels -precisely 2 1/2 inches this week - the matching kerchief, the exquisite cut of their gib…. All of these have nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with status, precision, belonging, being someone.

quote Terrance, a lead singer with a stutter, is prettier than Gareth Gates... quote
- Oonagh Jaquest

A man can be reduced to a gibbering, humiliated wreck by a crumpled tie, admittedly with the helping hand of booze, pills and the giddy atmosphere of Mistress Soho.

Vincent (Tom Hardy) and Clifford (Orlando Wells) put in superbly subtle performances. The play is so dense and wordy it could become static, but the actors pull off that trick of drawing your eye even when they're not speaking, being suitably mannered but not showy.

With peacock characters like these, the cast do well to steer clear of parody.

Paul Popplewell's rough diamond Leon is probably the easiest character to latch onto at the outset - he is cockney macho after a fashion that has become quite familiar of late.

Orlando Wells and Jesse Spencer
Jesse Spencer and Orlando Wells in The Modernists

Terrance (Jesse Spencer) might well become popular eye-candy for the theatre-going ladies - and gents - of Sheffield.

As a lead singer with a stutter, he's prettier than Gareth Gates - a fact that hasn't escaped the notice of Vince and Clifford.

Director Robert Delamere has them dancing around one another like the game-playing courtesans from Dangerous Liaisons.

Their charged relationship has hints of the homoerotic - which turn out to be homo-social, but then again…..

It is fascinating to watch them vie for the attentions of a protégé - after all, what is a self-made man without a follower?

Recommended watching for boys and girls, and food for thought for followers of fashion. It has an engaging and hypnotic effect and so many layers, that I for one might just go and watch it again.

- Oonagh Jaquest

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