Review: The Past Is a Tattooed Sailor

Old Red Lion Theatre
1 star rating
Taken as a whole, this play has enormous potential - there are interesting characters and a plot with situations that could be hilarious or tragically poignant - but it simply ends-up being tedious and exhaustingly long.
The Past Is a Tattooed Sailor at the Old Red Lion Theatre

Image: Old Red Lion Theatre

Show details

Show information

Closed here Saturday 27 August 2016

Cast and creatives


To be confirmed


Jeffrey Mayhew
Simon Blow


Past and present are one in the sleeping manor house where Uncle Napier lives in an eternal doze.

Upper class boy Joshua has sought out his great-uncle, long taken to his bed and drifting in memories of his glowing adolescence.

Joshua is having his own roaring twenties with new builder boyfriend Damien, but the burden of class weighs heavy over the young man, and ghosts from the past cling to him like Uncle Napier's overwhelming scent.

Uncle Napier draws both boys into his delusions that his own youth has not faded, and that a muscular sailor will give this Sleeping Beauty the reviving kiss.

Thus Uncle Napier drifts in reverie.

Until the two boys and Uncle Napier are sharply awakened by visits from Joshua’s rich Cousin Patrick.

But what sinister thoughts lie behind Patrick’s tight-lipped comments?

What exactly is he seeking?


The show is directed by Jeffrey Mayhew, whose recent directorial credits include The Ghost Hunter at Wilton’s, Tristan Bates, Theatre Delicatessen London, Edinburgh Festival (Pleasance) and national tour; and A Brief History of Beer at the Old Bell, London, the Brighton Festival, British and German tours, Adelaide Festival, American tours, transferring to Under Saint Mark’s in New York, off Broadway.

Last summer he directed A Cinema In South Georgia, which he co-wrote, for its total sell out borders tour and Edinburgh run last summer, where it received six four star reviews.


ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Friday 5 August 2016
Review star rating image

The title of this play on its own offers more than enough promise to draw you in, get you asking questions and ponder what might be in store.

It's a damn good title.

Add to that a synopsis which offers the heady mix of a gay theme, the roaring twenties, and the foibles of the upper class, and you'd be forgiven for thinking that you were heading for theatrical heaven.

I was expecting something along the lines of an Ortonesque combination of acerbic humour, raucous goings-on and eccentric aristocrats engaged in potty activities all combined with a dose of tragedy to boot.

I wanted to like this play.

In fact, I wanted to love it, if that's not going too far.

The Past is a Tattooed Sailor at Old Red Lion Theatre

Denholm Spurr and Jojo Macari

In reality it is almost devoid of any humour whatsoever, and the dialogue is written in such a bland, fragmented and jarring way that the enterprise ends-up simply being tedious and exhaustingly long.

Now that's unfortunate on many levels but most especially because writer Simon Blow has invested a considerable amount of his own life-story in the piece.

It is based on his relationship with his great-uncle, Stephen Tennant, here characterised as Uncle Napier (played by Bernard O'Sullivan).

Napier is in his later years and has taken to his bed - well, actually a chaise longue, which is hidden behind screens which are repetitively removed to reveal Napier at various points in the play - rather like santa being shown to expectant children at Christmas.

Joshua (Jojo Macari), Uncle Napier's great-nephew, is impoverished and in a gay relationship with a young, muscular builder (Denholm Spurr) and Joshua decides to visit Uncle Napier in his stately pile in the country in case there might be a legacy in the pipeline.

There, Joshua meets not only Napier, but also a recalcitrant old retainer (Paul Foulds) who caters for Napier's every whim, and a couple of ghosts - a younger version of Napier and his mother.

These ghosts are hugely problematic because their presence is inconsistently described - sometimes they are recognised by some characters, but at other times not seen by the same characters.

In his early years Uncle Napier seems to have known everyone who was anyone in the world of the arts - Jean Cocteau, Genet, Stravinsky, Bacon, Virginia Woolf to name but a few.

This should have afforded bags of divinely humorous anecdotes from extraordinary and larger-than-life personalities.

But we don't get anything of the sort.

I suspect the problem is that these stories were still locked in Stephen Tennant's head when he, sadly, died.

At the beginning of the second half, I thought things were going to move up a notch.

In an interesting opening scene, Denholm Spurr deftly and confidently switches roles to play a French matelot in a sexual encounter with Nick Finegan's well-defined younger Napier.

Mr Spurr manages to convincingly speak French with consummate ease in a situation which seemed to head us into more interesting territory.

However, at the conclusion of that scene we reverted quickly back to what had gone before - tedium.

Taken as a whole, this play has enormous potential - there are interesting characters and a plot with situations that could be hilarious or tragically poignant.

However, its salvation is in a complete rewrite to inject the appropriate qualities into the script and to enable the actors to shine because, as it is, they have little in the way of workable material to engage with.

Mr Blow can still achieve his aim of offering his, obviously admired, Uncle the remembrance he deserves by passing on the baton to a more experienced writer who might well make it a hit.

As it is, I'm afraid, it is immensely disappointing.

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