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Brighton Fringe 2019

Low Down

Sweetwerks 1 is a small space perfectly made for chamber theatre. The Barnes Players are directed by Terry Oakes with Francesca Stone who also designs the sets, with Carmel Blackie’s sound (pop, like Abba) and Jamie Rycroft’s lighting, this ensemble do as much as you could hope for in tight circumstances. On May 6th only. Tours to Edinburgh Fringe 2019


There really is No Knowing. Alan Ayckbourn’s December 2016 one-act comedy has its first performance outside Scarborough with the Barnes Players who present a one-off performance followed by an Ayckbourn double bill. Ambitious too. Brighton. Edinburgh. Barnes.


Ayckbourn’s connections with small, even amateur groups is one of his lesser-known acts of generosity, of which there are many. His son Philip has similar connections in Lewes.


So this really is a quiet first outside the Stephen Joseph theatre. No wonder it’s packed. No Knowing is a four-hander centring on a solid family unit, mother and father in their sixties perhaps, and son and daughter in their later thirties. They’re celebrating forty years of marriage and some flutes are even passed to the front row. Gratefully sipped, a nice touch.


There’s a small triptych of painted scenery in Francesca Stone’s set: a garden view and another one of a kitchen corner as we sashay from celebration to duetting to garden again. A table and chairs, different spreads – flute and a cake, or plates and kitchen things – fulfil the strip of space available. Directed by Terry Oakes with Stone, with Carmel Blackie’s sound (pop, like Abba, smartly chosen tracks) and Jamie Rycroft’s lighting, this ensemble do as much as you could hope for in tight circumstances.


The performance suggests why – apart from its short duration – this might not be vintage Ayckbourn. Trevor Hartnup’s Arthur is a bumbling collection of prejudices with grudging acknowledgment of the late 20th century, and it’s the next millennium already.


His wife Elspeth – Marie Bushell – is inevitably unhappier with his tokens for Christmas, his dislike of her food, and so much else assumed: that women are for childbearing and don’t do sex outside marriage, whereas men can find some. It’s as if Ayckbourn’s sketching him in as a 1960s character till he’s ready to develop him; then decides time running out. It’s not that Arthur’s boorish, but boring.


Steve Bannell’s anxious Nigel though – hot-foot from his pushy and now seven months pushing wife Denise – comes with startling information. Getting Arthur on his own he reveals that Elspeth is having an affair – with a woman. Nigel as portrayed by Bannell is sexist in his way; and still works at a place they could have closed with the suitcase shop Elspeth regales Arthur with, one of those sparkling bits of inconsequential Ayckbourn that expand in the memory.


Similarly Fiona Lawrie’s sassy Alison comes to tell Elspeth that Arthur’s been utilising Nigel’s old un-wiped pc to get in touch with an old flame of Nigel’s who’s Nigel’s age, but there’s a twist. Arthur thinks she’s thirty-something and so does she him.


Ultimately it comes down to what Elspeth can do to save communication, settle a plan that whilst not acknowledging either accusation to each other allows them to re-start their lives. Elspeth here reminds me of the way Sheila from Relatively Speaking, Ayckbourn’s 1965 West End breakthrough, deals with a similar situation; except this time she might be a little bit more guilty herself.


Bushell’s performance is delicately and ironically wrought with the right touch of warmth. Hartnup makes a convincing case for the cardboard Arthur. He makes him human. Bannell’s Nigel might breathe a little less up-front anxiety, but acquits himself well too. Lawrie projects a sassy worldliness that’s refreshing.


This is an attractive amateur performance from the Barnes Players who are worth seeing for their imaginative repertoire. And how many ensembles can boast of an Ayckbourn first outside Scarborough? Not even the West End.