Notorious grump Edward Bond’s longstanding refusal to allow professional revivals of 1965’s ‘Saved’ has had a weird effect on our relationship with his most famous play. Anyone familiar with British theatre will know about the infamous scene in which a baby is stoned to death by a gang of bored working-class Londoners. But few people under the age of 50 have ever seen a production. We’ve been left with the legend of ‘Saved’’s outrageousness instead of knowing it as a living, breathing play.
Sean Holmes’s production – the first in London for 27 years – does not preach, patronise or go out of its way to provoke. Instead the Lyric’s boss transposes 'Saved' from south London to the eerie limbo of Paul Wills’s black-and-white set. Disconcerting screeds of noise puncture the air, and the only period details are touches of slang in Bond’s script. Much of the sense of time, place, even class is removed, leaving a bleak but humane meditation on our species’s capacity for destruction.
‘Saved’ begins with weasly, well-meaning Len (Morgan Watkins) courting self-absorbed Pam (Lia Saville), then skips to a time when she is involved with the cocksure Fred (Callum Callaghan). She has also given birth to a child – presumably Fred’s or Len’s – which she does her best to ignore.
Nobody except ineffectual Len has a shred of decency. Yet they are strangely guileless and, thanks to the excellent ensemble, it is impossible to hate these people, trapped in claustrophobic lives with limited prospects. The baby-stoning scene is genuinely horrific, but its hypnotic build is almost ritualistic, an unlocking of the universal human potential for atrocity.
Bond has described the last scene, in which Pam’s family sits oblivious to each other while Len fixes a stool, as ‘irresponsibly optimistic’. But here they seem anaesthetised, selfishness swapped for a numb peace. If there is optimism, it seems to be a suggestion that animal destructiveness is preferable to this blank alternative.
But ‘Saved’ does not preach, merely attempts to reflect; and in Holmes’s excellent revival that reflection is painful, tender and bright with surreal beauty.