Brighton Fringe 2018
Richard Lindfield directs. Michael Folkard’s meticulous kitchen set is another marvel of BLT urban planning. He’s also responsible for the most deafening sound heard in this small space. A radio with the voices of Libby Purves and Stuart Macintosh crisply announcing nuclear threats on the Today programme. Jay Smith’s props complement the set, devised by Folkard, Smith and constructor Richard Harris; and with Felicity Clements and her team. Beverley Grover’s lighting does service in sudden blinding flashes and tenebrous interiors candle-lit or blacked-out.
Just when you thought the wind was blowing the other way, it’s back. Back with a nostalgia for nuclear Armageddon and the MAD options of the early 1980s. As we’re enjoined to recall: ‘two trigger-happy megalomaniacs are having a pow-wow in Singapore in a couple of weeks.’ Or more alarmingly, not.
Raymond Briggs’ 1982 graphic novel When the Wind Blows follows the misfortunes of a sixty-something couple following government instructions in the event of a nuclear holocaust: to the letter. But then letters drop off. As a scabrous assault on the lunacy scenario and criminal mendacity of government warnings – encapsulated in their Protect and Survive leaflet – Briggs’ work can hardly be bettered.
With black humour and graphic realism gentled to sweeten its deadly pill, Briggs meticulously takes apart government instructions, precautions and fall-out, just as the hapless Hilda and Jim Bloggs are slowly taken apart by the after-effects. In 1983 the dramatized version began its gentle sad ascent into the realm of darkest tea-time of the soul. In this patient, almost Chekhovian unfolding, director Richard Lindfield unpacks terrible laughter around this work’s silent heart.
Michael Folkard’s meticulous kitchen set is another marvel of BLT urban planning. It also falls apart. When we see it first, it’s a kitchen area stage left green-tiled with sink stove and fridge shabbily seventies with a table and chairs in white PVC serving a retired couple who’ve gone through the last war. A radio with the voices of Libby Purves and Stuart Macintosh crisply announcing nuclear threats on the Today programme. There’s a door stage left and another upstage centre, a window to stage right, letting in a greenish turquoise light. Folkard’s also responsible for the most deafening sound heard in this small space.
It’s an active set, a groaning character in itself. Jay Smith’s props include a shattered TV, radio and sound design to go with it. Cupboards and fittings are trained to keel over, devised by Folkard, Smith and constructor Richard Harris; and with Felicity Clements and her team working tirelessly in the dark (several times). Beverley Grover’s lighting does service in sudden blinding flashes and tenebrous interiors candle-lit or blacked-out.
Outside a small painted backdrop momentarily appears. Stage right – well there’s nothing much there yet. But with those warnings John Hartnett’s Jim determinedly goes about constructing a blast-shelter at sixty degrees incline, having to phone up to get set-square measurements and getting laughed at by the couple’s offstage son Ron and wife Beryl. Jim’s doing it with doors, since the blast must travel through. All true of course. Perhaps it gives them a few days grace. Patti Griffiths’ make-up is telling here.
Glenys Harries-Rees’ Hilda is more naïve than Jim, more concerned with the dirt on things than their use in saving lives. Jim’s initially a mixture of semi-informed certitude, blind trust and confusion. He’s full of malapropisms too. There’s ‘Renaissance’ planes for reconnaissance and the like. The slippage is phonetically harmless but ontologically deadly, since it’s that very slippage of language allowing governments to control people’s rage and fool them, possibly from beyond their collective Westminster graves. Though we know they’d be the last to die. Except the opposition.
Before all this there’s a couple of run-on parts where William Potton’s Paperboy and Des Potton’s Milkman give a fleeting semblance of normality lasting thirty seconds each. The touching scolds and demurrals Harries-Rees’ Hilda gives Jim when he’s attempting to make her see Armageddon’s a bit close this year, are treasurable. ‘If a German sees you in these socks he’ll think you’re a peasant.’ When Hilda briefly grasps it’s the Russians she proclaims: ‘I’ve seen the Russians dancing on the tele. They were all wearing boots. They seemed quite nice.’
As are Jim’s default clauses as in ‘of course, being a woman’ and other such reductions, intermixed with wartime recollections they share. Or in his case recall as a combatant. Several times during moments of calm they break into songs like ‘Pack up Your Troubles’; by the time of their second rendition they deliver it with a hauntingly different quality.
The gradations of normality are doled out amidst the reassuring euphemism of Protect and Survive from which Jim quotes to innocently deadly effect against what Kipling angrily describes in ‘The Benefactors’:
Ah! What avails the classic bent.
And what the cultured word,.
Against the undoctored incident.
That actually occurred?
This is Briggs’ brief, to measure the inanities of the government’s pseudo-reassuring leaflet against what would actually occur. The philosopher cultural commentator and poet Charles Lind recently declared that ‘all politicians should be compelled to read or watch When the Wind Blows at least once a year.’
Jim does everything asked. Only they’ve not time to collect all the water they’ll need. After hiding out in their shelter during and after the big bang (another delicious confusion of terms) they eventually collect rainwater. Sensibly they boil it. ‘Well if you can’t see, and you cant feel it, it cant be doing you any harm.’ Hilda’s pre-microbial belief – if you can’t see it, it won’t hurt you – is tested. And she has an answer to those Germans or Russians is it (at one point, even Jim’s confused); write a letter:
Dear sir, Mr. B.J. Thing… er… we the people of Britain are fed up with being bombed. We had enough of it last time with old Hitler so will you just leave us in peace, you live your life and we’ll live ours, hope you are well… please don’t drop any bombs.
Hartnett’s ambivalence as both knowing and innocent, shrewdly up on some elements yet winningly, wincingly innocent of others renders a complexity: does he later on begin to doubt his masters?
He tries to reason: ‘Say you want to bang one million people but you use a ten million people bang; its a terrific waste of energy in the present economic climate.’ Look at his behaviour towards the end. He knows what might occur and his attempts to protect Hilda from them are heartrending. So that when she reports a few odd symptoms he puts these down to piles and then admits he has them too but ‘being a man’ etc. doesn’t report them.
Harries-Rees’ development from slightly house-proud, hidebound and politically disengaged (to put it mildly) Hilda to a slowly frightened suffering being is managed with tact and a kind of un-layering. Just as Hartnett’s bluffness begins to expose a mask under which bleak truths slip and slide about in telegraphic language – platitudes and promises to go to the local hardware ship to buy in supplies – and silences. The disjunctions set up here provide the roundest laughs. Particularly fine is the way both actors slow up, as indeed the whole production inexorably slows down to pace their characters’ debilities.
Griffiths’ make-up for these minor ailments is consummate. At one point Harries-Rees does what someone in the latest NVT production (of 1984) does and indeed Billie Piper pioneered in Yerma. It’s shockingly naturalistic, managed with infinite tenderness.
There’s a late point when Hilda asks Jim to remember a prayer. ‘Would that be the correct thing?’ asks Jim, rather sceptical by this point. ‘It can’t do any harm, dear’ Hilda’s answer summarises her entire character. Jim can’t recall any really, except snatches, including ‘our help in ages past’ and shivered fragments of Psalm 23, including ‘lay me down in green pastures’ (‘that was nice dear’ Hilda adds) and then Jim lurches into a rather unexpected snatch of Tennyson. The effect is worth waiting for.
A physical actor I saw the work with, and Briggs expert, only wondered at the sheer pace of this production. Billed as one hour fifty without interval it took two hours three minutes on the first night. It nevertheless compelled me throughout and I couldn’t see it being significantly bettered. It’s necessary the production slows from andante to adagio, as it were.
BLT have produced in less than two weeks two outstandingly fine full-length productions. If King Charles III is the more spectacular with its bursting cast and frantic scene-changes, this latest offering confirms this theatre’s confidence in producing stark contrasts: an unfashionable yet horribly topical drop of silence into a bustling city.