The Past is a Tattooed Sailor Review

The Old Red Lion 2 – 28 August.  Reviewed by Claire Roderick

Simon Blow’s great-uncle Stephen Tennant, one of the “Bright Young Things” told him “not to forget me when I’m gone.” Blow’s response is this, his first play, fictionalising their relationship.

Joshua, the poor relation in a privileged and wealthy family, befriends his Uncle Napier, encouraged by builder boyfriend Damien hoping for an inheritance. Napier, lounging in bed for years, cannot accept his aged state, escaping into memories of his golden youth. The house is haunted by the spirits of young Napier and his over-indulgent mother (yes – it’s all her fault). And that’s about it. There is a slight build-up of tension revolving around whether Napier will write a will naming Joshua as sole heir, but nothing else really happens, just an arch, insouciant glimpse of Napier’s past, and a lot of navel gazing from Joshua. And I mean A LOT. This is the main problem – Joshua, orphaned and without inheritance, is a whining pain, as self-centred as Napier, but nowhere near as likeable. Jojo Macari does his best with the role, but Joshua is only bearable when he’s with Damien or Napier. But perhaps that’s the point.

The relationship between Joshua and Damien is the heart of the play, with Macari at his best when playing alongside Denholm Spurr. Spurr oozes charisma and makes the slightly seedy Damien the most human and relatable character on stage. As young Napier, Nick Finegan has obviously studied Anthony Andrews in Brideshead, and is suitably aloof and hedonistic. His scathing interactions with old Napier are one of the highlights of the play.

Uncle Napier should be a magnetic, fascinating creature, but is written as a name dropping, poetry spouting, vain and petulant old man. Bernard O’Sullivan has some wonderful funny lines that could come straight from Maggie Smith, but has a lot of work to do to convince us that Napier is anything other than an entertaining and frustrating old uncle. The name dropping doesn’t come to much either – any juicy anecdotes that would be of interesting peter out into nothingness – I will give Blow the benefit of the doubt and say that this is by design to emphasise Napier’s fading health, but I’m not quite sure. Blow’s language can be glorious, but there are times when he swings erratically between sharp staccato statements (mostly Josh having a moan) and lyrical phrases. There are times when you feel Blow has shoehorned a particularly good line he can’t let go of into a completely inappropriate exchange.

The set is simple, with moveable screens covered with paintings of sailors moved back by the cast to reveal Napier lying on his chaise longue. Scene changes are quick, but get a little tedious – if the audience suspends belief to accept two ghosts, surely trust them to accept that the front of the stage is a different space to Napier’s room. Jeffrey Mayhew’s does a fine job directing, but shows a little too much respect for the debut playwright, not cutting some scenes that added nothing to the narrative, and tidying up some messy dialogue.

The Past is a Tattooed Sailor is a promising, if slightly self-indulgent, debut full of nostalgia and bittersweet but ephemeral charm.