Brighton Fringe 2019
Co-directed by Steven Adams and Suzanne Buist, designed and lit by Adams – a screen and suggestive lighting sliding down it: green for park, red for a horrific brief scene, sofa and a few chairs and platforms – operated by Claire Ghiaci. Adams’ sound commemorates pop and what sound like Adrian Johnston’s film-scores out of Stephen Poliakoff. Helen Betty Ann makes much of 1950s fashion.
Following their magnificent Return to the Forbidden Planet, Brighton Little turn just two weeks later to more intimate territory, in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s award-winning debut play from 2008, The Pride. It’s a play that renews itself with each revival.
Its power resides in sashaying between two time periods, originally 1958 and 2008, now rightly pushed forward – it’s meant to be contemporary – to 1959 and 2019. 1959’s another world in its barbaric homophobia; 2019 still has its issues. In this version Grindr, Brexit voters as well as the alas perennial BNP make a brushed-up-to the-minute appearance.
Campbell’s brilliance here is in a deliberate doubling to make stark points: similar psychologies, pressures altering each personality; wholly different outcomes. So in each period there’s an Oliver (Joseph Bentley), a Philip (Nick Cousins) and a Sylvia (Charlotte Anne Atkinson), all nominally mid-thirties, each played by the same actor in both periods. Three other characters all played by Scott Roberts, appear twice in 2019 then 1959.
It also echoes J. B. Priestley time plays, and seems to be porous – one period’s characters during tiny moments hear the other’s. There’s moments when 1959’s Oliver describes such a moment, hearing someone say something, and it’s echoed in 2019.
Co-directed by Steven Adams and Suzanne Buist, designed and lit by Adams, The Pride inhabits one of BLT’s and Adams’ sparsest sets: just a screen with lighting sliding down it: green for park, red for a horrific brief scene, sofa and a few chairs and platforms – operated by Claire Ghiaci. It’s all it needs. Adams’ sound commemorates pop and what sound like Adrian Johnston’s film-scores out of Stephen Poliakoff.
Helen Betty Ann makes much of 1950s fashion, particularly for the Sylvia character, whereas her 2019 self is sassy stripes. It’s Roberts’ chameleon selves, particularly a Nazi suit but also a porn editor and doctor that rivals Sylvia’s 1950s black Dior.
1959’s Philip is a well-heeled estate agent married to Sylvia, an illustrator – who’s currently designing books for children’s writer Oliver. When Sylvia invites Oliver over for dinner there’s an immediate attraction between the men. Philip’s both drawn to and repelled by Oliver’s advances, aware his whole identity may be at stake. In 2019, the names are the same but Philip and Oliver are this time in a relationship, damaged by Oliver’s addiction to anonymous sex. Sylvia’s the friend they turn to for comfort.
If 1959 is not a little tragic – Sylvia’s character gets the two great set speeches, dense with fine reflexive language – 2019’s extremely funny; mostly. It starts with Roberts in a Nazi role-play uniform, an out-of-work actor demanding Oliver lick his boots, who then reverts to camp and makes a small pass at Oliver. Just then Philip returns. Roberts is quite wonderful in two wholly different accents in this scene alone: the dominator and the high camp ‘we have feelings too’ mode – downing his drink as he’s bundled out.
Hence 2019’s Oliver confesses his love of cock to Sylvia, who though she’s on a hot date with Mario, the man’s she’ll marry, seems irresistibly drawn back to Oliver and Philip. Particularly Oliver. In contrast to 1959’s probing sensitive Oliver, his 2019 selfishness is outrageous – though he’s the same character with the same empathy allowed out in the park so to speak.
Bentley’s register of the extrovert and introvert Olivers, with similar traits, is finely detailed, by turns touching and funny. Though charming 2019 Oliver actually insists after a break-up with Philip that Sylvia stay the night when her lover’s just stepped off the plane. It can’t all be down to the racy stories they share.
Would he she asks, suck off a man who voted Brexit? Or a fascist? Oops. Oliver in fact confesses greater excitement, hence the Nazi uniform incident Sylvia knew nothing of. Campbell doesn’t flinch from the amorality and power of dark sexual fantasies. Sylvia hypothecates more moral cock stories, wholly comfortable, joyfully accepting. What Bentley and Atkinson manage is an effortless badinage, airborne and zesty. It’s a natural, cheery scene in contrast with another they have 60 years earlier, as it were.
Sylvia’s 1959 self is nascently very accepting too, as we find with the scene she has with Oliver on a park bench. They’ve not met for a long time, since Philip and he have decided not to meet. The two actors find themselves in different modes: Bentley’s self, here withdrawn, emotionally true to his feelings is poignantly contrasted with Atkinson’s Sylvia, who emotionally has no place of safety. Hopelessly loving Philip, she, in a way, loves Oliver too. An ex-actor, she’s drawn to gay men with insight and ability to talk about what matters including feelings: an actor friend had hanged himself.
Again Campbell has 2019’s Sylvia exploding as she details a dinner party with abusively ignorant attitudes with no stupidity as an excuse: she grandstands a pro-gay speech on language. Another time has her telling girls off for using ‘gay’ as a term of abuse. It links her with her similarly exasperated 1959 self.
There’s scenes of increasing fractious intensity between Philip and Oliver, but after the explosive climax as it were at the end of Act One, we’re introduced far more to 1959 Sylvia. She coaxes out of Oliver on a park bench the truth she already knows, and it’s one of the most gripping scenes – as is her closing one, her 1959 self counterpointing the 2019 she’s just left the two men in.
Philip by contrast is a little like his 1959 self, a man who’s more cautious, more committed, not a player. His 1959 self has more to deny, and far more to go through. In denial he finally seeks professional help from Roberts’ stentorian doctor. The details might leave you shivering with rage as Cousins’ Philip faces his decision with blank despair. Again Roberts finds just the patrician assurance that in fact opens an abyss. Cousins is perhaps more comfortable in his assured wearily laddish 2019 self than the 1959 estate agent. Bentley and Atkinson are more assured in their 1950s roles, and are given more to explore. Roberts finds exactly the right tone whatever epoch he fits in.
He’s also both funny then oddly poignant as Peter the man commissioning a ‘gay life for straight readers’ then telling movingly of his own uncle’s death from AIDS when he was seven or eight: then snapping straight out again.
The final scene which splits off with a 1959 Sylvia talking in synch with the two men she’s left in 2019, is both affirmative and a measure of distance travelled; as tears go by. Atkinson’s final speech shows Campbell taking a plummet sounding when a too-happy ending threatens. He took the same approach with a surprise new character also making a speech in the final five minutes, in Sunset at the Vila Thalia at the NT Dorfman in 2016.
If Roberts is the stand-out, the cast is very good indeed, the production exemplary, the play itself effortlessly updated. It’s become iconic and needs to remain so. But don’t wait for another West End revival see this one.