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By Harry McDonald
Dir. Matthew Iliffe
Till 13 April, 2024
all images © Finborough Theatre

28 MARCH, 2024

Nicky Crane, Jake Richards, is a bona fide Neo-Nazi and has no problems with it, but he's also, secretly, a homosexual. FOAM, set in a variety of men’s toilets in London between 1974 and 1993, explores five periods in Crane’s life and tries to unpack a complex, confusing, and divisive character. Playwright Harry McDonald powerfully gives life to Crane’s story without judgement or prejudice and allows the audience to hear a truthful, imagined narrative from a voice that's long been placed on the periphery of Gay/London history.


It's worth noting that in 1994, the Finborough Arms (the pub beneath Finborough Theatre) in Chelsea became a refuge for Chelsea FC supporters who had clashed with Neo-Nazis. The attack came a year after Nicky Crane's death, though by this time he had been shunned by his former brethren. The Neo-Nazi influence on British society during Crane’s lifetime can’t be understated, and it’s not ancient history either; it's more contemporary than we like to think. Crane had a magnetism that would entrap people, no matter how hateful, cruel, or evil he was.


As a rule, I try not to read up on a new production before I review it; this helps me go into the show without any preconceived notions. But after reading director Matthew Iliffe interview for FOAM, I discovered Nicky Crane, and the more I read up on Crane, the more fascinated I became by his story.


In understanding how someone like Nicky Crane came to be, it’s important to add some context to the social aspects of cities like London at the time. Since the 19th century, British society has been fascinated with the idea of “slumming it.” Removing themselves from their class privileges to take walks on the wild, societal side. From the late 1960s right through the punk and post-punk eras, people became obsessed with exploring “other” spaces and cultures. In Crane, there was an image that was far bigger than his Neo-Nazi identity, and it was this image, even with these connections, that people were drawn to. McDonald converges past and present brilliantly, never making too strong a case for or against Crane or his actions. He leaves room for the audience to soak up what they are seeing and allows them to form their own conclusions about Crane. And yet, FOAM can’t avoid interesting parallels with contemporary society.


For some, the idea of anonymous sex in dingy toilets might not conjure up a romantic image, but through 2023 Linbury Prize recipient Nitin Parmar's incredible set, which adds a realistic dose of claustrophobia, intimacy has been created. Careful detail in Parmar’s set conjures up a unique, safe space between Crane and the men he meets. And there is something romantic in the idea that for Crane, these toilets are his refuge, his safe space, which is wonderfully realised as Richards storms around the stage, owning it. 


The five scenes offer a voyeuristic glimpse into Crane's life, which begins with a cocksure, albeit vulnerable, 15-year-old boy looking for guidance. And across the ensuing scenes, we see Crane trying to forge a connection that goes beyond his Neo-Nazi image, and in each scene, he seems unable to find that connection. The first scene between Crane and Mosley, Matthew Baldwin, is clinical, cold, and at times manipulative. It’s a long, delicate scene with long silences that grip you. One beat, then another, drags out the scene, only giving the audience a teaser of who Nicky Crane is. As in the second scene with Gabriel, Kishore Walker, he’s gentler, if out of his depth, a young photographer who’s obsessed with Crane and is equally confused by him, culminating in the third scene in which McDonald outdoes himself. The conversation between Crane and Bird, Keanu Adolphus Johnson, is a significant, beautifully written scene that unpacks so many layers of Crane’s story. The moment Johnson meets Richards gaze, a tentative dance takes place between them, each trying to validate their character's position, but with Johnson always ensuring that Bird is initially frightened of Crane but willing to hold his ground. These failed encounters leave Crane’s longing soul wondering. Our only sense of Crane’s latter redemption comes from Craig, Baldwin, and it’s a heartfelt, deeply moving scene, with some added polari for good measure.

It’s in Gabriel’s line, “Everybody looks different in bathroom light,” that I take this idea of these bathrooms being intimate spaces from. The tenseness of the scene is measured by this palpable energy between Walker and Richards; it feels genuine. The public bathroom is a non-space that doesn’t need to look or feel nice, so perhaps the lighting here is the most real it can be, allowing you to be seen for who you really are without a ‘filter’. As he meets Mosley, Gabriel, Bird, Christopher, and Craig, this greater intimacy and vulnerability are explored, and these restrooms become his confessionals that offer some solace.


Sound designer David Segun Olowu excels at creating a soundscape that never overburdens the narrative and helps guide the intimacy, isolation, and fear that they experience. In such a compact space, it could be easy to overdo the sound, but the care Segun Olowu has shown in his sound design is enticing. These elements are complimented by Jonathan Chan’s lighting, and between Chan and Parmar there is a gentle, perhaps subtle nod to the Pink Triangle that the Nazis made gay men wear during WWII. The thrust stage is maintained, but the shape of the bathroom, designed in a sort of isosceles triangle, coupled with the shocking pink lighting, seems like a perfect signal of this constant raging conflict inside Crane, Gay, and Nazi: two extreme opposing identities, as unsuited partners as water and oil, and yet they’re always rubbing against each other.

With an 90-minute run time and no interval, there is a lot to take in. The cast excels in this production in ways one can barely describe; they each have latched onto a story that seems unreal, and they’ve endeavoured to do more than fair justice to McDonald's text. 

"Perhaps this is Cranes damnation, having to relive his past deeds and see the missed opportunities had he stepped away from the Neo-Nazi ideology earlier."

Much like the duelling conflict that Crane was going through, and with the other actors doubling up on roles, small conflicts within their characters begin to come through. With Bird, Johnson is bold, fearless, and willing to stand his ground; he’s got no time for Crane or his Neo-Nazi associates, but as the nurse, he’s duty-bound to care for and protect Crane. This conflict can be seen in Walker’s character Gabriel, a shy, nervous, sweet boy who idolises Crane but becomes afraid. But as Christopher, he’s willing to use Crane for what he needs him for, but anything else is strictly off limits. Perhaps the biggest conflict of all is Baldwin’s Mosley, a monster, but as Craig, Baldwin offers a painful insight into the man Crane has become. It is also in this last scene that costume designer Pam Tait allows Crane, as he clings to life, to fight to try to hold on to his image—this identity that has caused so much conflict and pain in his life. In each of the play's scenes, Crane always seems to be looking for some type of validation, some sense of meaning, or purpose. Perhaps this is Crane’s damnation, having to relive his past deeds and see the missed opportunities had he stepped away from the Neo-Nazi ideology earlier. And yet, equally, McDonald shows his audience how easily such an ideology can take hold of someone looking for their place in the world. 

There is a Beckettian flow to McDonald’s writing that is captivating, and it adds greatly to the breathtaking flow of the play. This creative bond between playwright and director Matthew Iliffe has impacted the truth, beauty, and honesty of what should be an unpalatable narrative. Their play shows how sometimes, even within the biggest monsters, there is a heart wanting to be loved. 




The version of Nicky Crane that we meet is angry, articulate, curious, determined, and confused. He, like so many young men of his time, lacks focus or purpose, and the only credible subject he’s capable of is violence. Crane’s real life is one with no base, loved ones, home, job, or real future. For him, the only way he’s distinguished himself is through his image and violence, and we’d be fools not to see that someone like Crane becomes idolised by both those who agree with his Neo-Nazi views and those who don’t. As much as Crane was a byproduct of his time, upbringing, and the socio-political position in which he found himself, you can also see how someone like him could have been taken advantage of. He had ‘the look’ and everyone wanted a piece of him, and this perhaps gave way to his false hope of a new, more normal life. 


McDonald takes his time exploring some of these themes across the five scenes, which are powerfully captured in Scene Four between Crane and Christopher. It’s a scene that is filled with sexual humour and fantasy, which allows us to see just how people came into Crane's life and used him for their own ends. As this scene reaches its brutal climax, I feel McDonald trying to deflect the focus of Crane’s rage. The audience gets to see a strongly gentle, more open Crane who, for the first time, wants to move beyond the safety and anonymity of the bathrooms and move into a more normal relationship setting.


This was a vulnerable Crane, a man who has spent most of his life fighting an inner demon. The moment he shares with Christopher offers the audience a ‘what if’ scenario. As McDonald moves his audience into Scene Five, he, again, remains mindful and non-judgmental of Crane or his past deeds. It’s 1993; now excommunicated from his Neo-Nazi brethren, Crane has been turned into a cocktail shaker as he fights an unbearable pain he’s enduring. Can we forgive him? Should we? Did he leave it too late for absolution? These are genuine questions the audience might ask, but McDonald doesn’t elicit them from the scene. And at just 34, Nicola Vincenzo Crane would die from an AIDS-related illness, but unlike the thousands of men who would also die of the disease, Crane would get more than a few notices in the national press as well as a retrospective on the BBC News website twenty years later.


Am I being overly sympathetic towards Crane? I don’t think so. I think Crane’s was a life without a future, with every day being a good day, but it’s always on borrowed time. Had he lived, I believe Crane would have been remorseful and would have been able to use his notoriety to help others.


Idealistic, perhaps, but there is no monopoly on how one finds purpose in one's life. Nicky always had a purpose; he just ran out of time before he could find it.

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