“The Frontline” is a bold and frequently engaging attempt to show a slice of contemporary London — warts, druggies, Jesus freaks, ethnic tensions, and all. The action is set in front of Camden Town tube station, where 23 characters are presented through overlapping dialogue and occasional song. It comes across as the dark underbelly of scrubbed-up views of the city in films like “Love Actually” and “Notting Hill”: Though its politics are somewhat scattershot, this is a celebration of the struggles of the “desperate invisibles” who keep London running, and who, author Che Walker clearly believes, give it its heart and soul.
The production conditions at the Globe Theater — plays are staged outdoors in natural light with no artificial amplification in front of a sitting and standing audience of more than 1,000 — pose very specific challenges for writers. Thinking small is simply not an option.
Walker has responded with admirable vision and scope, offering a contemporary city play in the tradition of Ben Jonson’s “Bartholomew Fair,” a series of micro-narratives which give a sense of the municipality’s texture and teeming life.
Subplots include a charming flirtation between a lap dancing club manager, Violet (the fabulously brassy Jo Martin) and the studious club bouncer (Mo Sesay), complicated by the arrival of her hilariously attitudinal 16-year-old daughter (a star-making cameo from Naama Agyei-Ampadu); and an increasingly strung-out Welsh actor repeatedly phoning his agent (Trystan Gravelle ekes considerable comic rewards out of this one-joke role).
Other storylines include: a romance between a London underground worker (Sally Bretton) and a local drug dealer (Beru Tessema); and an elderly gent (Paul Copley) who, touchingly, believes every woman he sees is his long-lost daughter.
Presiding over it all is the hot dog seller Erkenwald (John Stahl, in gorgeous, Scottish-accented voice), providing an authorial overview in his direct-address speeches to the audience.
Such a guiding presence is a relief, because Walker has been over-ambitious in the level of detail in many of these stories and in his Altmanesque attempts to layer and interweave conversations, which frequently makes the action hard to follow. Audibility and diction are also ongoing concerns in Matthew Dunster’s lively, but not always clearly staged production (Paul Wills’ overly vague open-plan design also makes it hard to discern where exactly the action is taking place).
While incidental music from an onstage trio is lively, sung musical numbers are weak in composition and delivery: The energy plummets with every song, when it really should soar.
There are many instances of good, knockabout humor, and a strong seam of social commentary about an endemic bias against Britain’s ethnic minority populations by the white majority. Audiences lap up the play’s anti-establishment stance: Violet’s lengthy rant to a white supremacist thug about the debt Britain owes to generations of immigrants — “the National Portrait Gallery! We built it! Trafalgar Square! We built it! We built your schools, your prisons, your houses, your roads…” — is cheered and applauded.
At its clearest, the play offers a portrait of individuals striving to act well and get ahead, but held back by historic layers of bias, prejudice, and human weakness. But Walker’s forays into more wide-ranging geopolitical commentary (including a stab at the “strange inbred illiterate cowboy drunkard that sits drooling in the White House” — another big crowd-pleaser), and flights of poetic philosophizing make it hard to discern exactly where he is aiming his critique.
Stronger dramaturgical intervention could also have honed at least a half an hour off the baggy near-three hours of running time.
The particular demands of this production may have overwhelmed Walker’s capacity to keep his text firmly in control, but there is enough vitality here to wire several city blocks.