Brighton Fringe 2010
The Baltimore Waltz
Lucky Stuff Productions
Venue: Marlborough Little Theatre
A powerful production of Paula Vogel’s play, a surreal adventure in which she imagines a trip abroad planned by her terminally ill brother. Moving, witty and haunting by turns.
Playwright Paula Vogel’s brother invited her to take a trip to Europe, but she never took him up on the opportunity, unaware that time was running out. In this play, written in 1989, she imagines the road not taken, the adventures they might have experienced along the way. There’s a dreamlike quality, as in many plays and films dealing with HIV/Aids (‘Parting Glances’ springs to mind). The everyday is transformed in an examination of the surreal nature of life and its ending, while the ideas and thoughts of those who were often involved in the arts or at least interested in them, become theatrical experiences themselves, in elegies for lost careers, for lost lives.
There has to be an intellectual rigour to such plays to make them work – an underlying logic to give them power, otherwise it’s just a personal account, however moving. In this case, the interest is gained through the play’s switching of roles: here, it is the sister who is dying. This twist makes sense: the death of someone close is also the death of oneself. We are aware that our memories of them will die, as we will all die. There is a moment when lead character Anna is asked why she doesn’t want to visit the Van Gogh museum: she says there’s no the point, because she won’t be around to remember the paintings. Instead, she embarks on experiences that involve other people, implanting herself in the memories of others. By examining her own reaction to mortality through the character of Anna, the playwright is able to portray her brother as a living, vigorous being. And so, of course, he lives on in the play.
Olivia Thompson as Anna sympathetically reveals the many sides of her character: a young person with an active mind who has never travelled, a schoolteacher who is open to new experiences but cautious until faced with her own death. Chris Herriott as her brother Carl is engaging and witty, showing a subtle vulnerability in his encounters with the mysteriously imagined Third Man that hints we are, in fact, following his own journey through illness. Robin Soutar is a strong presence in his many different roles, giving a convincing quality to the sinister apparitions and comedic characters that are no more than dreams.
The actors move the components of the set throughout, so benches become hospital beds, hotel beds, train seats, and airport security stations. Director Suzy Catliff ensures we travel from place to place quickly in a well-choreographed dance, ending in a more literal ‘dance with death’. Perhaps there could be a greater evocation of the place through the use of light and sound, but this is the Fringe, and something has to give. It is hoped that this production will be given the chance to grow.
The actors come on for their bows visibly moved, and a few audience members are caught sniffling into tissues when the house lights come on. I found this is a rewarding play to watch alone, as you can privately engage with the universal resonance of its personal subject matter: its quiet power is cathartic, never sentimental.