The Tristan Bates Theatre, currently home to a revival of Martin Sherman’s Passing By, is a curiously anachronistic fixture in the West End. It is one of the few theatres in London that could possibly lay claim to that most American of terms – ‘off-Broadway’. Unlike the Arcola, the Southwark Playhouse and even the Almeida, the Tristan Bates Theatre is genuinely situated in the heart of the West End and surrounded by some of the biggest theatres in the country.
It also has a bracingly uncommercial sensibility that sets it apart from other non-traditional West End theatres; the Donmar Warehouse by way of comparision, barely two minutes away, can hardly lay claim to such a perspective when the cheapest of their friend’s packages clocks in at £350. It is a theatre that feels, and attempts to be, dedicated to playwriting and acting. The black box space and the, presumably, limited budgets leads to a much reduced directorial hand and a focus on the play and performance. As a result the Tristan Bates is an ideal home for Sherman’s 1972 two-hander about two gay men coming together in 1970’s New York.
Passing By is play that rests on the naturalism of its dialogue and the interplay between the two lead characters. It has been quite a long time since I have seen a production that allows the play to seem so unencumbered; in part this is because the majority of the play is set in one location but credit must also go to Andrew Keates unfussy direction.
Intentionally or not Keates has managed to capture something of the uninhibited freedom of the golden age of American cinema; Robert Altman’s Nashville immediately springs to mind or perhaps more appropriately given its New York setting, the criminally underrated Klute. In these 1970’s films, as in Sherman’s play, the audience gets the sense that they are capturing snippets of a life, fading in and out of conversations whose intangibility only serves to reinforce the grounding in reality.
There are one or two scenes that are set outside of Toby’s apartment but Keates makes no real attempt to change the setting; a couple of seats and the whir and flicker of a projector is enough to take us into a cinema, a sideboard repositioned tells us that we are now in a wine-shop. These small touches allow the play to keep up its natural pace and the audience doesn’t get sidetracked by the immaterial.
That is not to say that the set is not worthy of mention. If anything it operates as a third actor; it is the most superb evocation of an apartment in the heart of 1970’s New York. Every element feels steeped in the period without running into pastiche. It is not just pleasing that this has been achieved, it is an essential element of bring the period to life as the naturalistic nature of the play dictates.