Best known to many for his long-running roles in Eastenders and Holby City, next month Paul Bradley will be taking to the stage at the Finborough Theatre in a long-awaited revival of T.W. Robertson’s Caste. This new production from Project One marks the 150th anniversary of the ground-breaking comedy, which hasn’t been performed in the UK for over 20 years.
So what’s it all about? “Well of course the clue’s in the title,” says Paul. “It’s a play about social divisions in Victorian London. Eccles, a drunken father with no money, has two daughters: Esther, who’s being courted by George, an aristocrat and miles above her in social station; and Polly, who’s being courted by Sam, a man of her own social class. George’s mother is a snobbish Marquise who disapproves completely of the match and is appalled by the Eccles family. George and Esther marry but he’s called to fight in India. He disappears and Esther’s father drinks and gambles away all the money that had been left for her and she’s now, as well as having given birth to a son, impoverished again. I won’t spoil the denouement but it’s a comedy so all ends well!”
Paul joins the cast – which also features another TV favourite, Susan Penhaligon – as Esther’s father Eccles, and he’s enjoying exploring his character’s hidden depths: “Eccles is a drunken father – so a bit of a stretch for me there! He’s a complicated man. On the surface he seems just a drunken beggar, but he’s intelligent and sees himself as being as good as anyone in a higher station. He is also cruel and has an addict’s selfishness. He claims to be a champion of the working man but hasn’t worked a stroke in twenty years. Although he doesn’t live by them, the sentiments he spouts are commendable; he’s a victim of both his circumstances and his own ‘life choices’.”
Caste was described by George Bernard Shaw as “epoch making” – but what made Robertson’s play so revolutionary for its time? “It’s the first ‘cup and saucer’ play – the equivalent of the 60’s ‘kitchen sink’ dramas,” explains Paul. “And it’s as radical as they also were. The people and situations are realistic – a mirror to nature of Two Nation Britain. It’s also that rare thing; a funny play which looks at English social mores.”
And Paul believes the play is just as forward-thinking today as it was 150 years ago. “Absolutely. It’s so modern, so – depressingly – relevant. A real political play. It expresses, in a comical way, real, deep concerns about class, aristocracy, poverty and social mobility.
“It’s very funny and moving and a sort of social document. I think it will amuse, move but also leave an audience thinking. It spotlights the challenge of social mobility. Without satire it introduces real characters whose social gulf seems insuperable but who, in finding love, see that gulf as irrelevant.”
Caste‘s production team is headed up by director Charlotte Peters, currently Resident Director on An Inspector Calls in the West End. “I’m rather daunted by how brilliant the cast and director and designer are,” says Paul. “They’re a brilliant team who are all committed to making this show a landmark production.”
It’s been more than two decades since Caste was seen in the UK, and Paul’s delighted to be bringing the play to a new audience. “When I first read the play I loved it and felt I had to be part of it. I can’t believe that this hugely influential work hasn’t been performed for so long. It’s the sort of groundbreaking play that the National or RSC should be championing.
“Because it is such a gem I feel a responsibility to live up to the author’s vision, and I think this is a view shared by us all. With a play of such quality it is a gift to be a part of the production. I hope that we start a re-appreciation of Robertson’s work and find a new audience for him.”
Caste is at the Finborough Theatre on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays from 2nd-18th April.