Dudley rules the New Cross roost

There are certain actors you just love whatever they do, and Dudley Sutton, with his battered cherub face and incorrigible weak “Rs”,  is one of them.

The original Mr Sloane in Joe Orton’s play is now an unlikely 77 years old, and not as busy as he used to be.

Last sighted on the Edinburgh Fringe with his own beguiling autobiographical solo show — he’s done a lot of living, our Dud — he’s now giving a fantastic performance as a gangster grandfather in a new theatre, Hot Tap, in South London.

When I say “now” I mean — until tomorrow. Dean Stalham’s God Don’t Live on a Council Estate has been the short opening salvo in a brand new, rough and ready venue hard by New Cross Gate station, just round the corner from the Hobgoblin pub that serves a pretty good hot food and Thai snacks menu.

When the show opened two weeks ago, Guardian columnist Deborah Orr, wife of local novelist Will Self (whom Stalham persuaded to open the place on “gala” night), berated the critics for turning a blind eye.

They did so partly because everyone’s diary was already chock-a-block. And partly because Deano — a rolypoly ex-con, blessedly untutored in the PR ways of the world — had blitzed every critic in London with about three dozen hectically penned emails of rising desperation.

Still, that has not deterred Whatsonstage’s own reviewer giving the show five stars, nor Nick Curtis of the Evening Standard writing a fascinating feature article about Stalham’s Art Saves Lives campaign and his colourful past.

Deano’s done time in Pentonville and Ford Open Prison for credit card fraud, and served a six-year term in Wandsworth for handling stolen paintings. His background is hardcore criminal working class, with a history to match, natch, of long-term abuse.

On the road to rehabilitation, he worked as an antiques dealer in Watford (this week’s top oxymoron?) and became a one-person parent when his wife died, he says, “after a long, four-year suicide by alcohol.”

Now reformed and rehabilitated — and living on £130 a week of working tax credit and self-employed benefit — he’s single-handedly got Hot Tap gushing; the new play plugs painfully into his own personal history. He’s also selling the tickets and pouring the drinks.

Sutton’s Beckettian grandfather, a rebarbative veteran of the Spanish Civil War, sits on a cushioned throne flanked by two huge oxygen cylinders, Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner.

He’s closer, you feel, to Ava, whom he tickles intimately every now and then.

A history of bitter, crime-related family feuds unfolds with his grandson (newly returned from selling silver snuff boxes in Spain; that’s the Stalham role), the grandson’s ghost of a tragic wife, and the grandson’s best mate, a flaky Jewish drug-pusher who’s trying to off-load Warhol prints of Lenin and Marilyn Monroe.

It’s all very bizarre and a bit lumpy: stuff is coming at you all the time from left field.

But that is the badge of the writing’s raw authenticity, as it was in an earlier grandfather play of Deano’s I saw in th Union Theatre a couple of years ago. Even a Royal Court playwriting course hasn’t knocked off the rough edges, and thank God for that.

I’m told that the opening night was a bit ropey, but Pam Brighton’s production, which is terrifically well cast, has bedded down nicely now, and the last scene is simply spine-chilling.

Hot Tap is housed in a former cash and carry warehouse and is potentially a really exciting, very large theatre space.

I just hope Stalham finds sufficient dosh and a proper way of exploiting it fully. He’s taken out a three-year rental and is planning more of his own plays, and others’, as well as a poetry jam with Dudley Sutton, who is on record as saying he wouldn’t have bothered coming back to the stage if it hadn’t been for this play.
One can only wish them best of luck. And hope that Dudley Sutton, like the character he plays, lives for the moment when he receives his centurion’s telegram at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

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