Brighton Fringe 2019
Directed designed and lit by Jeremy Holloway for Ratchet Theatre Co. Till May 16th.
Anna Jordan’s unusual in that her Bruntwood-winning play Yen in 2015 proclaimed a writer 10 years older than many debut dramatists (as she points out) yet her plays feel very much of part of the post-crash wave, full of grungy detail, scrupulous yet zesty, wide-ranging in theme yet intimate.
Freak premiered by Theatre 503 at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014, really is intimate. Two women on opposite sides of a bed with different lamps and certainly different clothing relate widely differing sexual experiences, both in consciousness and fact. One is 30, the other’s a girl of 15 determined to become a woman as she points out.
Directed designed and lit by Jeremy Holloway, the two actors – Katie Bottoms as the older Georgie and Hetty Elliott as Leah – complete a tight ensemble. The play, originally just under 75 minutes, is shaved with Jordan’s blessing to about 57, mainly removing for instance expositional angst about the ex of one protagonist. This version‘s now portable to any Fringe event.
Jordan starts with slow alternations between the two characters; this intensifies, intercutting gets shorter and shorter, with sudden parallels – common words and actions – in synch. It’s theatrically thrilling, detailed and believable.
Georgie at 30 has few illusions. She’s lost her father (and couldn’t be with him) her long-term boyfriend Jamie and her job in quick succession. Life’s spiralling down in brand-checking other women: ‘fetid Fem-fresh from her crotch’ is the kind of disgust Georgie signals, worldly-weary before her time and not prone to covering it up. But she covers herself from the blinding sun with a hangover.
Leah’s 15-year-old dreaming self latches onto Luke and she rather abandons friend Sophie to start experimenting with him. Practising her cum-face, she Veets a lot, practises sexual positions, and fantasizes about being all-powerful, all-vulnerable, even enjoying it. There’s a first time and Leah’s very responsible too. Her hesitant moves, her gentleness and Luke’s refusal to go down on her all slowly turn Leah’s natural lyricism into something knowing and a little disappointed. And going solo doesn’t seem to do it for her either.
All sorts of pressures before during and after her first encounter leave her frustrated, discounted by people who she thought would welcome her womanhood. It boils down to ‘I’ve got to keep having sex or they’ll think I’m frigid.’ She later recounts returning to Sophie for comfort, with a twist Luke never dared. Is she a lesbian she suddenly wonders? Elliott winningly conveys the nervy hunched frankness of a healthy girl exploring herself but without the language, role-models or affirmation to know it.
Georgie’s long past that, is anything but responsible and apart from seeing how many times she can come to Antiques Roadshow to really ratty Chardonnay, she doesn’t see much point. But then she has to eat and pay the rent. Brilliant, she’s accepted in her new job straight off, even if she does pretend she’s 25 and strips to show it. Lap-dancing is empowering, men adore her, and when four come home with her – she gets a free ride in the taxi after all – why not proclaim that the no-touching club rule ends here and invite them all inside?
One, Gareth is a little worried for her, and another, her namesake George regrets it, only when it’s all over. Bottoms gives a virtuoso demonstration of Georgie’s coke-filled arousal. A disinhibited vocal arc shatters as suddenly the men turn animalistic. Georgie collapses, does something jaw-dropping in a supermarket and is taken in by her sister. Bottoms is sovereign here, giving the kind of performance you applaud on a mainstream stage.
So what do these women have in common, do they ever even meet?
Jordan’s stagecraft dovetails answers and affirmations. This is a play everyone should see, switching humour and pathos, absolutely serious yet unapologetically hedonistic with clear suggestions as to where things might go awry. There’s not a whiff of judgment, and it’s the kind of advice Leah would want to hear.
Bottoms and Elliott – who’s only just graduated – put in consummate performances full of heart, wit and humour, bringing out the sweet and very sour flavour of Jordan’s idiom. If Bottoms describes the most intense parabola of despair, wild compensatory excitement and collapse with a wry redemptive role to end with, Elliott turns in a beautifully contained fragility and robustness by turns. Like Bottoms she registers voice changes over a trek to maturity, with sudden adolescent eddies of doubt. It’s a superb play, and receives here a first-rate revival.