Brighton Fringe 2019
Fritz’s a two-character one-person Ross & Rachel features Joanna Rosenfeld, directed with technical support from the Rialto by Sam Chittenden, whose Different Theatre mounts this in association with Pretty Villain Productions at the Rialto. Lighting’s crucial bathing Rosenfeld in blue for clinical excoriating scenes, red and green for others more emotive. There’s a transparent basin of water with jars. There’s hollow white rectangles for seating and building, and pine ones, larger, which aren’t used.
What is it with James Fritz? In The Fall, we get an accelerated 80 years over three scenes where it becomes clear the young 20-year-olds tasked with caring for a 92-year-old now, are struggling with a mortgage at 48 nearly 30 years on, and at 88 or 90, well a very different proposition in a very different society.
Then there’s Parliament Square, which won Fritz a major-league Bruntwood Award in 2015. There a young woman’s foiled attempt to burn herself to death as a protest outside Parliament leads to a physically painful aftermath where – still hardly able to get about – she’s confronted by a girl with a match again at Parliament Square asking whether, inspired by her, she should do the same thing. And Comment is Free is coming to Brighton Little Theatre this autumn, also directed by Ross & Rachel’s director here, dramatist Sam Chittenden.
Ross & Rachel at the Rialto is more gently perhaps, in that vein, riffing two characters – Jennifer Aniston and David Schwimmer – off-on-off-on finally joined at the hip and marriage from the 1980s sitcom Friends.
Here though as written by Fritz in 2015 it’s a two-character one-person show with Joanna Rosenfeld, directed with technical support from the Rialto by Chittenden, whose Different Theatre mounts this in association with Pretty Villain Productions at the Rialto. It originally opened at the Edinburgh Fringe then off-Broadway in 2016, touring everywhere.
Lighting’s crucial bathing Rosenfeld in blue for clinical excoriating scenes, red and green for others more emotive. There’s a transparent basin of water with jars. At one point it goes red. There’s hollow white rectangles for seating and building blocks where the actor can peep out, singing ‘coffee?’, and pine ones, larger, which aren’t in fact used.
It’s not about this couple, but not not about them Fritz has stated, adding that coupledom’s seen as a happy ending when there’s other possibilities. Here we open with an ex Prom Queen and geek both about 45 (her birthday in fact) and both with PhDs, she a potential leader in her field.
Ross’s mantra ‘she belongs to me’ alerts us to a less cuddly man than Schwimmer presents. And Rachel is increasingly alerted to his boring elements. Then as narrated in the first half of this straight-through piece, Rachel gets a brain tumour… One grisly passage has her gouge her eye to remove ‘black lump’; she’s imagining that. Nevertheless she’s on a horror-cocktail journey of chemo and the usual.
Rosenfeld’s a consummate actor, on a par here with the very finest either the Fringe or Festival can present. Her capacity to simply deepen the voice for Ross goes with a hunched look and a minute, never parodied inhabiting of his more constricted maleness.
Rachel by contrast is more expressive, and finally in one extraordinary breakdown repeats ‘coffee’ with an explosive terror until the words run down and Rosenfeld’s character breaks down, collapsing in the aisle. It’s when she’s Rachel we get eyeballed and even invited to sing Happy Birthday. There’s a flutter in the face, blood pulsing over an uncertain muscle. It’s hypnotic and disturbing.
Rosenfeld and Chittenden have pushed their envelope, never over-emphasized it. Rosenfeld’s vocal arc is contained and explosive precisely where it needs to be.
And for Rachel, now facing death it’s like being behind a glass pane looking out. ‘Look at all those fucking couples out there. Which one will leave. Which one will run. Which one is cheating on the other. Which one will die first. Him. Him. Her. Him.’ She embarks on a heavy flirtation with Daniel from work, but ends it, perhaps wrongly. After all his sympathy he’s there with another girl or two then back off to Australia.
There’s a twist however. Suddenly we’re reeled back and it’s Ross terminally ill. Only after much grumping he’s not prepared to go it alone. We enter territory streaked with night, see a fantasy narrative from his perspective then reel back to the start-point and process Rachel’s view. There’s a question-mark, though. We trust the format, two characters in one. Is Fritz playing with that? There’s no definitive answer.
To relate the denouement would act as a spoiler. This play might riff off Ross and Rachel but it’s not them we access, any more than Romeo and Juliet. It’s what in an age increasingly feeding off pop culture uses as shorthand for lovers. This is Fritz’s take on what he grew up with. Then runs with elsewhere. It’s not a sequel, it’s a starting block for imagining.
It’s a profound delight too to have one of thirty-one-year-old Fritz’s plays presented at the Rialto, as it was with Anna Jordan’s Freak. This is the kind of theatre we should be seeing and the Rialto presents more than its fair share. Only Brighton Little Theatre and New Venture Theatre otherwise essay this territory, in some productions in their seasonal schedules. And just occasionally Theatre Royal, as with Rotterdam in April. Here we have a superb London-worthy production on your doorstep, if you’re in Brighton. Don’t hesitate.