Brighton Fringe 2018
Billed as a rehearsed reading director David Eaton has managed more in the flexible NVT Studio space. With Kasha Goodenough on production and managing, Vanessa Barrett and Mark Green on seedy costume designs – this is a full costume performance. The overall scarlet/black detail of costumery is carried to Adam Kinkaid’s scarlet/black scene painting. Keith Dawson’s light design is unfussy. Leanne McKenzie’s light and sound operation comes to the fore in balancing the live musicians: Adam Hewitt music director, Becca Huggett singer, guitarist Matthew Clark and Neil Rocks on drums. Marie Ellis deserves notice for voice coaching.
Our Town. Gone mad. Elephant’s Graveyard, George Brant’s dystopic vision – from 2010 – of two days in September 1916 in Erwin Tennessee, really happened. Spark’s Circus arrived, and an elephant was arraigned for murder. If you can call it either of those two things. ‘There was a town. A man with red hair. An elephant’ as the Ringmaster Martin Ryan informs us with a crackling nasal snarl. ‘It’s all about the investment.’ He relates the insurance claim for a Billy Smart elephant; and how it was then posthumously used again: stuffed till it fell apart into a ghost of itself. But this elephant’s called Mary. And through a chorus of thirteen characters, we hear what happened.
You won’t hear it from the red-haired man. A newcomer, he demands the right to lead with Mary, largest of the elephants, when the Trainer Shorty (Alice Ringholm Heder) would prove far more suitable. Mary spies a thrown-out watermelon the Hungry Townsperson (Alex Williams) relates was there because the poor trash men finally went on strike. The red-haired man’s enraged. The effect’s disastrous. Talk about taking an elephant to crack a nut…. without the gun.
Though billed as a rehearsed reading it’s clear that director David Eaton has managed far more in the flexible NVT Studio space. Kasha Goodenough on production and managing, Vanessa Barrett and Mark Green on spectacular seedy costume designs – from the battered Mad Hatter’s shorter top hat and hunting scarlet (not pink) of the Ringmaster, to the tatterdemalion rags of the poor, this is a full costume performance, striking, spare, original and strange. The tangerine overalls of the Steam Shovel Operator (Richard de Costobadie) look almost period, Sophie Burton’s Ballet Girl (all sensually wrought in Mary’s trunk that never loses its erection), Benjamin Pritchard’s Clown: the overall scarlet/black detail of costumery is carried to Adam Kinkaid’s scarlet/black scene painting. Keith Dawson’s light design is unfussy, ideal for a straight choric production.
Leanne McKenzie’s light and sound operation comes to the fore in balancing the live musicians Adam Hewitt the music director, Becca Huggett the evocative singer, guitarist Matthew Clark and Neil Rocks on drums; their pieces particularly the finale, are evocative eldritch additions to the story. Period songs, new twist. Marie Ellis though deserves particular notice for her voice coaching. Most actors are virtually off the book, some entirely. Their accents are starkly resonant, and rasp as authentically as my knowledge of place goes.
The townspeople demand a trial too. The cast stand facing a corner of the Studio. They rarely move – the Trainer does most of that, running off and on stage. Each character speaks out and virtually never to each other save by implication and commentary (the Tour Manager on the Ringmaster).
The play is then a chorus-line of disapprovals with slight demurrals – Heder’s empathic and furious Trainer, and Tom Cunningham’s Preacher. Heder making her debut – she’s a Swedish exchange student – has much to do and is excellent. Ryan’s of course the actor cracking the whip and his own voice: it’s a tour-de-force. Diana Barham’s Tour Manager offers a realistic hard-boiled watering down of the Ringmaster’s almost maniacal obsessions with giving the public what they want. But he’s a shrewder judge he concedes, of the most base instincts: and how to survive them.
Pritchard’s Clown who has so much digging to do after his initial ball-spilling, invests his role with predictable humanity; it’s what clowns are meant to crumble to.
Mark Green’s excellent Engineer litanising the railroad’s infinite possibility, snarls his disdain for anything un-mechanical. Being keeper of times, he can stop time. His mechanical hymns are evocatively horrid. Jamie Marchant’s Strongman looks like Rooster Byron and sounds Hungarian: his pique at being upstaged, his simmering, contained rage clicks as he snaps his fingers back and forth. Paddy O’Keefe enjoys a sojourn from Shavian socialism for which he’s known as the xenophobic Marshal, in contrast to the Young Townsperson Cosmo Rana-lozzi’s more sympathetic lament. Cunningham’s Preacher is a simple part but here invested with something like aching compassion, and a moving last appearance commenting on the other elephants’ actions.
Williams too as Hungry Townsperson manages another voice of dissent. Burton’s Ballet Girl is a vulnerable mix of sexual excitement, faux-innocence (‘any way you want me’) and dire need. What will she do if there aren’t elephants? She’d rated them above diamonds as a girl’s best friend. At the end, she wonders about diamonds.
One stand-out is another more layered character, Caroline James’ Muddy Townsperson. Someone submerged in want and loss shows at first despair, then horror, then anger then horror again. Her explosive outbursts really add a dimension and show what this production’s shaping up to be, with only two performances. De Costobadie’s Steam Shovel Operator exudes a sad stoicism, a determination to see it all through.
You’ll need to see this decision to lynch an elephant and what actually happens for yourself. It’s just possible NVT might be persuaded to mount a full production. They should. It’s in their best American vein. Forget Rehearsed Reading. It’s the real thing.