“You never know with a bird where it’s been, or what it’s done.”
Alfie Elkins was a bit of a sixties phenomenon. Bill Naughton first created him for a radio play and this led to his appearance in a 1963 stage play, and in the 1966 novel Alfie, which became the fastest selling novel of the 1960’s when it was published alongside the iconic film starring Michael Caine. The original stage play is now on tour again, almost fifty years later, so we have a chance to look back at it and see what it was that fascinated everybody. It was quite strange to realise that many of the audience who were tapping their feet and drumming their fingers to the sixties beat music that played before the matinee at the Stephen Joseph Theatre started would have been in their prime at roughly the same time as Alfie. How time flies.
You have to start by talking about the central performance in this play as everything revolves around it. David Ricardo-Pierce is utterly believable, full of confidence and clearly enjoying himself in the role. Alfie talks directly to the audience throughout, allowing us into his thoughts and feelings and he does this brilliantly, letting us see his often less than admirable selfishness and narcissism without questioning himself. “You have to look after yourself in this life” is one of Alfie’s mantras and he certainly does that while causing major damage to those unfortunate women who cross his path. He thinks of them as objects for his own convenience, “see how it scrubs” and is totally unable to see anyone else’s viewpoint or act consistently in support of anyone but himself. He does make attempts to support his girlfriend when she insists on having his child and keeping it (a huge decision back then) but when push comes to shove he will always run. He begins as a likable Jack the Lad, letting us eavesdrop on his top tips for playing fast and loose and getting away with it. He gets plenty of laughs, in spite of his outrageous lack of respect for women, but finally we have to stand alongside him as he shares his feelings about the moment he finds the aborted foetus of his baby son when he returns home after leaving the vulnerable older woman who he has got pregnant to give birth alone. This is a horribly moving scene but as with every other setback Alfie moves on and decides it is time to settle down with one of his other conquests. Whether he would have managed to do more than buy a bunch of flowers for her we will never know because when he turns up she is with another younger man and we leave him with his options rapidly diminishing and absolutely no idea how to find a new way forward in life now that the old way isn’t working any more. He has had his chances and he has blown every one of them. There may not be many more. He has finally found out that actions have consequences but it may well be too late.
The rest of the cast provide extremely solid support surrounding Alfie and there are some very touching performances showing us the care and vulnerability which are so lacking in him. I particularly liked Barbara Hockaday’s performance as Gilda and Vicky Binns as Annie, two good young women who deserve better than Alfie can give them. Isabel Ford is heartbreaking as Lily Clamacraft. It is very important that we feel for these women and that the actors give them real depth as they do not get the chance for an interior voice. We hear Alfie’s viewpoint relentlessly and they have to provide a counter balance for this without speaking to us directly. I also found John Branwell chillingly believable as Mr Smith who induces the abortion. His performance was an object lesson in restraint and truth on stage.
The SJT was the perfect venue for this production as there were lots of set changes, done by the cast, which they managed with great speed and precision. Alfie, in particular, had to do many scene changes while he was talking to us in character and this takes great concentration and skill. It is the kind of play which needs the eye of an experienced director and it has found one in David Thacker.
This is a rather dark, quite chilling play, a lot darker than the chirpy cockney image which those who only saw the film years ago will probably remember. It is very much a portrait of its time, and makes you feel for the women who had to negotiate a complex shifting world with new morals, dangers and opportunities. It certainly wasn’t all freedom and fun. Some women of the time paid a high price. Alfie was written in the same year that the Beatles released their first LP and Valentina Tereshkova blasted off into space but it was also the year of the Great Train Robbery and the Profumo scandal. Fifty years is a long time and this play gives us a chance to look back at what has become another country almost without us noticing.