Brighton Fringe 2015
Small World & Charm el Sheikh
Jump through Hoops Theatre
Venue: The Lantern Theatre at ACT 8-10 Rock Place, Brighton BN21PF
By the time we’re half-way through a play, we can usually get a good feel of what the story is about – the ‘arc of the narrative’ if you prefer. ‘Small World’ and ‘Charm el Sheikh’ are a couple of short plays put on by Jump Through Hoops Theatre, and the two attributes shared by both were sparkling dialogue – and the fact that nothing was as it seemed at the beginning.
The acting space at The Lantern is quite small and intimate, we’re very close to the actors, and ‘Small World’ started with two high wine-bar tables and seats, which gave us the play’s location, and a lower seat in the back corner occupied by a dark haired man reading a newspaper.
Pippa and Grace came in with their glasses of wine, and sat at one of the tables. They’re in their thirties, and they start girl talk about sex and relationships (what else?) Pippa is blonde, with a brownish peacock-feather pattern dress that gives her a rather young, innocent appearance, and Helen Pepper-Smith plays her with a slightly high voice – easily shocked. Grace is in black, with long black hair and a mischievous smile. Jane Elizabeth Callan plays her as a knowing and sexually active woman – she can "meet a man and be in bed with him an hour later having sex". This is in grave contrast to the prim Pippa, who thinks that a boyfriend should wait six months before any physical intimacy – "They should know the difference between No and Not Yet".
There’s a good deal of sexual banter between the women, some very funny lines, with the two of them all the time completely oblivious of the man sitting behind them. I kept waiting for him to react in some way, and a lot of the power of Matthew Lloyd Davies’ direction of the play was the way he kept the man absolutely still, just occasionally raising his eyes at some particularly outrageous remark. I ended up listening to Pippa and Grace, but watching the man for his reaction. . .
After a while their friend Frances arrived, closely followed by Gary. These two defined themselves for us by launching into a heated political discussion. Frances is a tax consultant, and Sally Davis made her into a spiky Conservative – "If people are poor, it’s because they piss their money up against a wall!" as she argues with Nick Moon’s socialist, Guardian-reading Gary – "Your banker friends screwed up, but it’s Joe Public who pays".
So now we had four people in the wine bar, plus of course the man in the corner. Four clearly defined characters, but four stereotypes really, and I foresaw some fairly predictable action ahead.
But Pippa had been to the bar to get drinks, and as she returned Gary recognised her, with a shock – "Hello, Wendy". Turns out that the two had met on an Internet dating site, with Pippa going under the pseudonym of Wendy, and that neither the virginal Pippa nor the liberal do-good Gary were quite what they had seemed.
In spades . . .
I won’t spoil it for you by giving away the ending, because the upheaval of everything we thought we understood about this group is a real tour-de-force. Very clever writing by Ray Anthony kept the audience laughing, but completely wrong-footed, until the final minutes of gasp-inducing revelations. The dialogue was pretty full-on throughout – we had vibrators, condoms and tampons, and at one point there was discussion of a sex act in a ladies’ loo.
That might be why a family group left hurriedly at half-time. Or it might have been because Helen Pepper-Smith appeared to strip down to just her knickers in the blue backlighting between the two plays. In fact, she was taking off her dress to reveal a swimsuit, which she proceeded to cover with a wrap for the poolside scene in the following play.
We were misled in ‘Charm el Sheikh’, too. Here Pepper-Smith became the rather sophisticated Gina, taking a much-needed break at an Egyptian resort. Gina was looking for peace and quiet by the hotel pool, but instead she got Cher, everyone’s holiday nightmare.
Jane Elizabeth Callan played Cher in this one. She’s also the writer of ‘Charm el Sheikh’ (what a talented woman) and she gave us a Cher who is shallow, completely unsophisticated, gross in her bodily habits – she gives Gina a detailed description of her intestinal problems resulting from the Egyptian food, while she’s sitting shaving the calluses off her foot – AND SHE NEVER STOPS TALKING.
Gina tried to remain aloof, but inevitably she got enmeshed in Cher’s unending catalogue of woes and problems. Her only respite was drink – the powerful cocktails served by Tony the hotel barman. Alexi Parkin (who had played the silent man in ‘Small World’) is tall, with slicked-back dark hair, and he played Tony with a heavy accent and a brooding sexuality.
Cher’s hotel room is broken into and her money stolen, so she ends up sharing Gina’s hotel room, and Gina herself obviously has some kind of trouble back home – she gets a series of disturbing phone messages and threatening texts on her mobile. She can probably manage to deal with the problem – she seems like quite a tough cookie – but Cher, of course, is fearful for Gina’s safety AND GOES ON AND ON TRYING TO BE HELPFUL.
As with ‘Small World’, we were not expecting the complete turn-around that was waiting at the end of this play. None of the three characters turned out as we had assumed that they would. All the assumptions I had made turned out to be wrong and at the end there was a genuine sense of the ground being cut away from beneath us.
Both plays were cleverly constructed and well acted – my only criticism would be that the actors were a bit too fast, and also sometimes too quiet, in their delivery. When you’re familiar with the material it’s easy to forget that the audience won’t have heard the lines before – and they have to process what they are hearing in real time.
I haven’t given away the surprise endings of either of these plays, so that you can experience the same sense of surprise that I got when I saw them. I talked with some audience members afterwards and we agreed – you won’t be disappointed.