Brighton Fringe 2010
Hilaire Belloc’s ‘The Four Men’
The Old Courtroom Productions
Venue: The Old Courtroom
Festival: Brighton Fringe
Hilaire Belloc, who famously lived in and travelled through the lengths and breadths of the Sussex countryside, is probably best known for his little poems for kids. However, his writing career was far more varied, including this peculiar novella, now adapted for the stage by Ann Feloy. The result is flawed and not particularly brilliant theatre, although the experience is still charming and very enjoyable to watch. Technically, it needs refinement and improvement, and the story could do with a little editing, but the basics here are in the right place.
Although ‘The Four Men’ started life as a novella, this new stage adaptation brings this now-often forgotten story back to light, and what more perfect place to show it than the Brighton Fringe: the story is, basically, a travelogue of a journey through Sussex, from the perspective of Belloc himself. This is simultaneous this show’s charm as well as its downfall, as the travelogue structure allows the audience to travel with the cast through all of the local haunts, while also leaving the story a little vague and too close to a six-year old talking about their weekend: "And then we went there… and then we went there… and then we went there…"
Still, where the story is not a description of routes-less-travelled, it is so much more than just the basic description of an East-to-West journey across this county. The splitting of the main character into 4 (a part of the original) allows each of his different voices to speak their piece, creating a varied and interesting dialogue. True, they are all far to stereotypical, but this fits well into the narrative, and allows different perspectives on some pretty hefty issues to have their full impact. The setting of the piece around the time of Halloween is also a nice touch, adding a supernatural element to this otherwise purely literary exercise.
For all that this story is well-told, it is not engaging enough to become an hour-long piece. Simply put, not enough happens, but the generally rather simplistic production does itself no favours either. It certainly isn’t badly done, just very simply: the acting seems, mostly, a little perfunctory, as is the lighting, sound, set design… most aspects of this production seemed to be geared towards giving the words centre stage, but they didn’t seem to have that much to say.
While the writing isn’t bad, it relies too much on the source text: a bit of poetic license to deliver a more ambitious stage production wouldn’t go amiss. Similarly, the rest of the production could do with a general step up: everything here needed a little more oomph. I personally found it charming, as did, by the the sound of it, the rest of the audience: plenty of groans and chuckles as certain town names came up, anyway. Maybe that’s all this play wants: a receptive, friendly audience of locals. However, if it wants to go further than that, it needs, generally, a bit more pizzaz and stage-craft.