I have been a little bored lately by excessively reverential productions of classic plays. “Reverential” could never be quite the word for a revival of Edward Bond’s 1965 succès de scandale; nevertheless, Sean Holmes’s staging has something of the air of a formal presentation. Before the first scene, furniture is carried on to the bare stage with ostentatious deliberateness. Holmes is aware that the play is not quite stuck in its own time, nor yet transferable wholesale to ours, so he dresses it in a not-quite-period, not-quite-timeless look. The performance style, too, is not-quite-naturalistic, as if the performers could do natural delivery perfectly well if they wanted, but they rather choose to go just off-centre, to keep us always aware of what is before us.
This exaggeration of the banality of Bond’s lines led me for much of the first hour (of three and a quarter) to wonder whether the play has not always been a kind of cultural slumming: sympathising with the dehumanisation of the urban lower class, but doing so essentially from a distance. (I wonder how it would go down were the Royal Court, which originally premiered the play, to present it in its imminent Theatre Local project in Peckham, precisely the kind of grim district depicted.)
Such doubts about Bond’s perspective are ultimately dismissed by the strength of the piece. If you know one thing about Saved, you know that it features a scene in which a group of youths stone to death a baby in a pram. Nearly half a century on, this remains a powerful sequence. It does not emerge from thin air as a gratuitous shock tactic, but is built up as the youths’ initial curiosity about this creature grows heartless, then abusive and ultimately violent. When the child’s mother Pam returns afterwards to retrieve it, Lia Saville shows the detachment and perfunctoriness of the character’s parenting by burbling away to it without ever bothering to look at it.
Michael Feast and Susan Brown bide their time, waiting for their respective moments as Pam’s parents, and Morgan Watkins is paradoxically eloquent in his portrayal of the inarticulacy of Len, who persists in trying to find a way forward for himself and the others. The play’s message about the comprehensive removal of hope and dignity from an entire tier of society is arguably now even more cogent than when it was written; however, Holmes’s production pronounces this message rather than making it live.