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Brighton Fringe 2016

Low Down

Patrick Sandford – actor and previously artistic director of both Nuffield Southampton and Lyric Belfast – both writes and acts in this Ingenious Purpose production directed by Nancy Meckler (late of Shared Experience) at Sweet Waterfront 2. Till May 22nd. Beware live saxophone onstage.


Patrick Sandford both writes and gives the central performance in this Ingenious Purpose production, directed by Nancy Meckler (late of Shared Experience) at Sweet Waterfront 2. It’s almost a one-man show but unusually he’s accompanied by a saxophonist, Tomm Coles who plays at crucial moments.

Sandford’s well-known as an actor and artistic director of the Nuffield Southampton and Lyric Belfast. He’s a skilled adaptor. But this is his story, a witness with more than requisite theatrical vision and skills to convey what a key encounter in his life has done, and not done to him. That doesn’t make it less difficult: Sandford’s essaying this at 63.

He inhabits himself as man, boy, persecutor, or a small gamut of others: Sandford’s inflections, vocal projection, sheer eyeballing intensity melted in a moment, exhale as a moment of artistry what was inhaled in years of anguish.

He even ad-libs an exchange between himself and director Meckler about what Brighton can take. This merely offsets one of the tightest, devastatingly lyrical yet truthful scripts examining this theme.

Young Patrick plays with his toy theatre. It sets a trope for both illusion and survival resonant throughout (truly, Dr Theatre), as do Greek myths. Apart from the toy theatre there’s a table, chairs, balloons (the second production here to stage them, very differently) a fountain pen and a bottle of Mateus Rosé, Ellan Parry’s designs developed by Meckler. At key intermissions to narrative or emotional junctures Coles’ sax drifts in, as if to blare out a truth that can’t be verbalised, but loudly inarticulated.

Patrick, whose mother’s also a teacher, is singled out by teacher David Morsley as very bright. So’s young Sally White, praised for handwriting, something at which her teacher excels (this is emblematic). Patrick’s fine at reading. Praise comes at a price. Mauling follows grooming, including dining with Patrick’s mother – shared professionalism blinds her naturally – where he’s already sore with manhandling and plays with the frisson of flirting when her eye’s averted. Sandford underscores how much complicity is brought literally into his own home, so no hiding-place exists for what is in effect shame.

We later learn Sally threatens her father will ‘bash’ Morsley: she escapes. Sandford drops the fountain-pen into a bin. No more calligraphy

By contrast, another teacher who sees Patrick molested as he walks in pretends not to notice. Predators like Morsley are by their nature skilled survivors, exceptional at their jobs. Patrick can’t drop his gift of a voice into the bin.

Shock comes with rejection by the abuser when someone younger arrives. How, asks Sandford, can I lament the loss of something I loathed? It’s not the abuse that lasts most or indeed the greatest evil done: it’s grooming, making-out a child’s special, the complicit shame. Then dropping them; like a spent biro.

A fugue of imagined revenge follows, trashing Morsley’s house, tracking him down as he’s dying of cancer, only to face dismissal by the imagined teacher. At a key moment Sandford picks up the chair he’s hugged in self-defence – standing in for the child Morsley and now he addresses – and hurls it at the wings: a shocking indictment of self-hatred.

Sandford attempts two modes of Morlsey’s self-explication. One, a cocky schemer wheedling or snarling. Sandford projects the teacher’s getting into Patrick’s mother’s good books, all Mateus Rosé dinner, then a private voice: about how he can’t abide anything but pre-pubertal skin, his ‘own first nature, what I was born with’ and a plea for his own sexuality.

In a key subversion of Sandford’s own Greek narrative, his inner Morsley, now turned inquisitor uses the hackneyed Greek trope of older men with boys teaching them love.

Ultimately it’s Dr Theatre, literally that floats him out of this morass as Sandford attaches the model theatre to the balloons and releases them: they float off. A masterly use of miniature props as symbolism.

Morsley uses compressed prose, Sandford breaks into rhyme, not childhood mnemonics but verse drama describing a state of shame: intensifying language brings dignity, a measure of ritual, release and distance.

Sandford asks fundamentally how you cope when first what’s done to you becomes what’s taken inside you, finally what now is you. Rejection of this ingested poison takes a lifetime.

Survival takes the form not of judgement, but respect. The Japanese intelligence officer who refused peace was persuaded by his own commanding officer by a simple salute that his duty was over. Likewise acknowledgment would have made Sandford’s life far easier. It took him years to realize it wasn’t being gay that caused self-loathing, a conviction everyone found him repellent.

Similarly, Albert Saxe, who created the saxophone survived a gamut of calamities. This is the rationale for the sax, breaking up textures, dismissed angrily, cajoled and applauded, like the young Patrick himself. It also relieves acute tensions. Simon Slater composed these specially and the exchange between Sandford and Coles when Sandford asks for a phrase to be repeated makes music of emotional states that have to be rehearsed. David W Kidd’s clean lighting is crisply deployed, with for once a perfect stage blackout.

Groomed is extraordinary in that the artist himself presents a play about his own harrowing abuse, crafted with dramatic force and structures his own narrative as compelling for an audience watching a fictive drama, with input and support from fellow-professionals. His acting out truth as it were refracts such raw experience through artistry so it can be expressed rawly again at visible cost. Sandford’s use of motivic devices such as chairs, balloons and toy theatre make telling use of an innocuous childhood space of table and chairs which turns the scenery into places of danger and ultimately, with the balloons, a quirky transcendence. The sax’s human lament cuts across the voiceless interstices in a way not used before, a child’s pre-vocal lament for himself. Ultimately, it voices in the particular a universal story with ‘classic’ abuse (if such a term has to exist) visited on so many – and at this level it’s the first to do so. That’s why it’s outstanding,

A Q&A revealed much afterwards, the dangers of monstering people, the need to address psychoses of paedophiles who’ve realized their tendencies (many fight them) without treating them as criminals-in-waiting. The CEO of Mankind the Sussex-based charity discussed this alongside Sandford. The drama of revelations didn’t end with this astonishing, groundbreaking play.