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Theatre Review: Decadence. By Joe Williams

A performance of Steven Berkoff’s 1981 play, Decadence, by the “brand new theatre venture”, Misplaced, was warmly received by a good crowd at The Alma Theatre on Wednesday night (2 March).

Misplaced are an interesting prospect, formed by four actors who decided to stick “two fingers up at COVID”, “get themselves back on the stage” and “create theatre with and for those who have been absent for too long” using “misplaced” texts. Certainly their decision to resuscitate Berkoff’s text for those of us emerging from our own seclusions to make friends again with live performance is welcome. The play is extremely intense: the same two actors play two couples in rapid succession, with the adultery and shameless profligacy of the toffs provoking envious and murderous intentions in the proletarian pair. There is little let up: the scenes cut immediately from one couple’s bickering and plotting to the others philandering and gluttony; the actors repeatedly forced to turn on a dime. The posh lovers’ licentiousness and mutual indulgence is outright nauseating; so too is the grubby, guilty, vacant copulations and recriminations of their poor rivals.

The play’s depiction of class dynamics is equally raw, naked and of its time: there is no comeuppance for the cruel, racist, fox hunting chauvinists here; no sense of a moral or emotional victory for the workers, upon which as an audience of a more modern fable would almost certainly insist. If the play sets out to lampoon the affluent and opulent, the rich folks depicted within it are none the wiser, and the commoners themselves declare their losses – financial, sexual and emotional – the result of ingrained, inescapable deference rather than sheer injustice.

Misplaced manage to meet this sense of ferociousness and add a whole heap of their own. The programme for the evening carried a quote from Berkoff: “Like smoking, naturalism can damage your health.” It would perhaps be absurd to take on the play with an aspiration for subtlety or inference given, on top of everything else, it also takes the form of a series of long, rhyming, often soliloquous poems, but both Amy Tanner (as Helen and Sybil) and Ciaran Corsar (as Steve and Les) take every opportunity to dial up the intensity through unrestrained physical intimacy, unbreaking stares and an elaborate and yet thoroughly enjoyable delivery of the character’s crass, class mannerisms. They moan; they grunt; they flash legs or zip up flies to mark the start of a stanza and thrust hips to measure the meter.

Conversely, other dials are set to near zero. Lighting is stark; the stage is near bare; scene transitions are most often breathless. The production keenly accentuates Berkoff’s depiction of the grotesqueness of wealth – and the bleakness of poverty – that is so associated with the politics of the early 1980s. But, through annotations and embellishments of this postcard from early Thatcherite Britain, it also rather neatly asserts its continued relevance by reminding us of the most recent controversies experienced by The Windsors – and the contrasting obsequious and pageantry that we should anticipate in celebration of their matriarch’s big do in June. The experience is without doubt at least partly one of arresting nostalgia of the stereotypes and thinking of that era, but in also finds a way to reassert Berkoff’s revulsion for the indulgencies and injustices of social inequality in a way that a play so firmly of its time may otherwise seem too blunt persuasively to achieve. The ruling classes may have learned to wear their status with greater discretion – and depictions of a suppliant and jaundiced proletariat may now be quite rightly intolerable – but Misplaced remind us that both power and money remain firmly in the decedent hands they always have.

The production continues at The Alma until Saturday (5 March). Tickets are available at