Brighton Fringe 2019
Eddie Alford writes, directs and stages Hello Who’s Calling at the Presuming Ed Coffee House London Road Brighton. Technical support by Andy Moseley. Later tour TBA.
‘That’s not a telephone box’ says the theatre director next to me: ‘that’s an Irish Tardis.’ Eddie Alford who‘s written, directed and staged Hello Who’s Calling at the Presuming Ed Coffee House, would cheerfully agree.
It’s a white telephone box with Celtic lettering ‘Telefon’ in neat shrubbery. It’s conjuring leprechauns though. Specifically a series of sketches involving the Irish telephone exchange from 1979-84, when suddenly Ireland caught up with automated exchanges, to the relief of adulterers everywhere. Till then since in any Irish village you’d be listened in to by the other four telephones, you might as well be telling the spouse to come round to your trysting spot and join in.
Oh but Alford’s a nearly pure soul, since this is the simple courting of Marta – that endangered species a Spanish Protestant student – and Mikey, who’s no more religious than he should be; but that’s enforced. Simple though can get its wires crossed, and elders very cross. It’s 1979. And at last Spain allows its Protestant minority to worship after Franco (it’s grown since then; as of 2009 there’s 1.5 million in Spain!). But Ireland and reform?
Harbour Theatre‘s latest Alford as always located in a coffee house consists of a few bar stools in front of a packed audience. Stage right, if you can call it that, is a beautiful slide projection blown up of phone locations in the village and London. Technical support here is by Andy Moseley. The only problem is the writing and lower parts get occasionally obliterated unless you’re in the front row, and even then, by shadows. It’s pretty clear where we are though, including Piccadilly Circus tube (outside) and Victoria Station. Oh and a Brighton phone box of 30 years ago. Bar costumes, there’s not a single prop: Alford’s aesthetic is clean mime where possible.
Five actors including a bit-part of Uncle by Alford himself, play out the comic cat’s cradle of stand-by-your-phone as Fenia Gianni’s Marta parries the amorous Mikey Reilly, Gerald Dorrity’s perky word-rich and pound-poor proposals.
It’s framed by Carl Anderson’s first incarnation, a BT Man in orange day-glo giving us the low-down on them damned Irish exchanges. I wish we had him back a few times, even though Anderson reincarnates superbly in two of the best roles, a priest and Stan’ard seller. BT Man points out there’s five handsets. One, the post office nerve-centre, two the priest, three the factory the biggest local employer, four that other nerve centre the pub, and five the local landowner and JP.
So…. one ring and the first picks up and so on. Trouble is, everyone picks up on first ring without really waiting to listen out for the number of rings to signify who should. So everyone listens in to each other and often contributes. Especially the Postmistress, one of her perks as the moral majority. Alford simplifies this to a three-way, though I wish he’d amplify the cat’s cradle to an arachnoid bed of spittle-trapped sin.
Mikey and Marta’s arrangements are hampered partly by Marta’s uncle, a factory owner, forcing her to retreat to a broom cupboard Uncle hints he knows about. And by Claire Coull’s main role as that Postmistress who can only be baulked by broaching her secret sin: a sherry, or crème de la crème, as she calls it.
Gianni’s fine at parrying, though it all seems banter; Dorrity has a nice line in blather and slightly wide promises. Occasionally they actually meet. ‘No tongues’ says Gianni, as though Marta knows all about it. Biology students she says.
Gianni’s funny and sassy though I miss the faintly outraged innocence and taboo-breaking of teenage courtship, bar exciting the Postmistress. Perhaps that Uncle role could be bigged up. Dorrity’s subjected later to a priest, and it’s his journey rather than Marta’s we follow. Ireland traditionally oppressed its women even more than men, and a trip to the priest being out of the question (she’s a Prod, and that in itself could cause potential conflict not really explored) there’s a lack of danger for her. For Mikey’s there mortal or venal sin, and he nattily explains the distinction.
Coull’s interfering is relatively benign, and Coull well marks out the territory of loneliness by pointing it up within the delicacy of comic timing. I wonder if darker characterisation might just be hinted, but Alford’s resolutely cheerful in all his depictions, within the elegance of farce. Mikey’s talking to her in the pub owns a poignant sense of a life beginning triumphing over one that stalled.
Two Anderson roles frame the interval of this very brief show. As Priest Anderson plays it straight, heavy in his cassock snorting hellfire and sniffing out Mikey’s identity quicker than a Hail Mary. Anderson and Alford well limn the limits but also the possibilities of the priest’s powers to harp on mortal sin – what Mikey’s helpfully explained to Marta.
After the drinks we get the Stan’ard seller giving truculent directions to Mikey at the top of Piccadilly Tube. No it’s ‘Ounslow’ now I get you, no H see?’ It’s another superb comedy sketch, where they nearly come to blows over Ireland and British imperialism but somehow extricate themselves. Like the priest scene too, it’s one of the best. Mikey’s now seeking digs and after the ‘No Irish’ rule is trounced by finding other Irish friends, works as a labourer in summer, and (he says it’s others) sleeping in the unconnected sewage pipes.
The last scenes feature the lovers failing to meet at Piccadilly, with mutual recriminations and a sense that Mikey’s played around, going to parties as he can’t stay in just as she does. And Marta’s own move to Brighton where Mikey relocates, though not in the same house, of course! Coull reincarnates as the clear-headed sympathetic interviewer for Marta’s future job of switchboard operator in Hove’s own exchange on Holland Road. It’s a neat scene, the only one where two women develop an extended scene together.
These are often delightful vignettes, some promising rather more than that. Alford works by loosely aligning sketches and scenes together within an overall theme. Sometimes, as in his 2013 Breakfast at Dalkey, and last year’s magnificent Love in the Harbour, about three First War Irish air aces, they build to an entrancing and satisfying whole, with an overarching narrative. Hello Who’s Calling is shorter: sketches with the picaresque in patches, suggesting a work in progress. Harbour fans might hope Alford can expand, with switchbacks woven in to tell an even richer story. But as it is, it’s great fun, and no-one who knows Harbour Theatre Company need hesitate. The Alford touch is worth a diversion for. Or a trunk call.