Encore, May/June 1962, pp. 51-2:  Review of Nil Carborundum by Irving Wardle


Nil Carborundum


At a time as self-conscious as this we don't really deserve a dramatist like Henry Livings.  While other writers tend to measure out their work with the circumspection of Cabinet Ministers whose words may be quoted back at them in an evil hour, Mr. Livings is as free of inhibitions as a child in a sand-pit.  He is the only serious dramatist we have whose work is genuinely playful.  He is a primitive; unfailingly responsive to the outer appearances of his subjects, he shows very little interest in underlying dynamics, social or psychological.  His plays are pieces of evidence, objective records of life; the spectator may read significance into them if he chooses, but he will get no assistance from the author.

Having dealt with two out-of-the-way corners of society in Stop it, Whoever You Are and Big Soft Nellie, Mr. Livings has now turned to a broad popular subject.  Nil Carborundum, at the Arts Theatre, is set on a post-war R.A.F. station, and this setting furnishes a more exacting test of his originality than did the public lavatory and radio repair shop se4ttings of his past two plays. Everyone is familiar with the service life--if only from TV serials; and the question is how far Mr. Livings manages to get comedy out of it without overlapping with The Army Game.

The answer is that for the first half of the play at least he remains as much his own master as ever.  His strength here, as before, is the unerring accuracy of his observation, backed up by an ability to distort comically without hiding the truth.

The centre of the play is the station kitchen, run by a shifty S.A.C. called Meakin who is up to his neck in intrigue and profitably engaged in flogging rations on the side.  Also at work in the kitchen are a second cook, a terse uncommunicative character who holds aloof from all fly practices, and a pompous little civilian steward who wanders in from time to time to make ill-timed attempts to assert his non-existent authority.  With this as a centre-piece, the rest of the station life accumulates in short, tightly-packed episodes--tooth-and-nail battles for seniority among the sergeants and W.O.'s:  savagery in the C.O.'s office.  At every point the action reveals the meanness and pettiness that tends to overtake regulars in peace-time.  The life is almost exclusively political, though the rewards for successive intrigue amount only to such trivia as early leave passes, excused duties, and the rest of the dreary rigmarole which take on such overwhelming importance when one is inside the system.

This, if anything, is the statement that the play makes.  Though, if one is looking for a statement, there is an alternative one in the plot which finally sends Meakin to the Glasshouse and leaves his saturnine companion laughing, as the saying is.  In other words, keep your nose clean.  This is a piece of Army philosophy itself, and I doubt very much whether Mr. Livings would give it his support.  The fact that it is what emerges uppermost in the plot only underlines the fact that plot is the least important component of his plays.  His method of presenting simultaneous actions so as to build up a portrait of corporate life obviously leads to diffuseness; and in the second half of the play--an over-prolonged battle exercise with the stage seething with umpires and marauding invaders--he loses control, and the result is boring.

What, more importantly, Mr. Living fails to do is to create a theatrical language out of service speech.  He knows the terms all right, but he leaves them as he found them.  I know of only one successful attempt to compress service argot into dramatic language--Giles Cooper's brilliant radio play Mathray Beacon, a work that demonstrated what I had always suspected, that the slang could be compressed into something as expressive as Pinter's Cockney.

However, Nil Carborundum is a vital and very funny play about a sad and wasteful sector of modern life;  and at the Arts it gets a racy and enthusiastic production with notably good performances from Nicol Williamson, James Booth, and Graham Crowden.

                --Irving Wardle