Tobacco Road begins with a standoff, a gang cornered in a shootout, directly facing the audience. The gang of 1920s ne’er do wells address the audience. “We should tell them how we got here” gesturing at us. “We’ll have to start all the way at the beginning”. The cast run through the years 1918-1920, explaining why life as gangsters is so attractive and exciting in postwar London. The Great War had left a legacy of disarray and corruption, fuelled by alcohol and cocaine. The cast use very few props, just a few crates and bandages to tell the story. Impressive theatrics, including choreographed dance routines, are integrated in a way that isn’t cheesy or cliché. This is by far the highlight of the show.
While the London accents are far from convincing at times, the characters are well developed. The plot follows Elsie (Jennie Eggleton) and Frida (Atlanta Hayward) in their struggle to make money upon having lost their factory jobs to returning soldiers. They join forces with loveable buffoon Alfie (Dan Whitlam), sympathetic brute Tom (Angus Castle-Doughty) and Felix (George John), the ring leader and brains behind the operation. To begin with, the gang are at the bottom of the pile; petty thieves struggling to make ends meet.
As they work their way up the ranks, accumulating wealth and reputation, cracks begin to show and their ambition leads to their inevitable demise.
It seems the approach of biting off a bit more than you can chew has leaked somewhat into the production. While the individual performances are compelling, there is too much packed in to pace well in an hour. This means the production relies on a periodic narration, a repetitive breaking of the fourth wall to advance the plot. The result is somewhat disjointed and feels rushed and unresolved. Some interesting plot points - the struggles of a queer boxer and a gangster with a developing drug problem - are left unexplored. Despite these shortcomings, the show is worth going to see, if just to see a boxing ring transform into a telephone wire.