Brighton Fringe 2021
Directed by Graham Pountney at the Rialto these comedies effervesce around the soda siphon, Vogue magazine, table and period chairs, designed and stage-managed by Alexandra Kataigida, Poster Design Jamie Nimmo, with Andrew Johnson’s period sound. Till June 10th though touring to Ventor, Isle of Wight. Contact Rialto and producers for details.
When the first of these plays The Weatherman premiered in 2017 alongside another comedy of Giles Cole’s (The Romance of the Century, treating that other renegade royal duo) I wrote: ‘Could this be the pilot to a melancholically-observed sitcom like Vicious? One audience member suggested it.’
The resounding answer comes in his trilogy After All These Years, of which the original play is the entrée, neatly missing the definite article. Though these comedies can be seen separately, Cole has like Ayckbourn, constructed a work in three acts of cumulative force and seriousness. It seems certain now that its future is in that form. One hour-forty with a break after the first work, it’s an absorbing three-act play and the finest premiere I’ve seen in this Fringe.
Weatherman is a two-hander featuring Nicholas Day’s Alfred and Director Graham Pountney’s Charlie, originally set in 2002, an enthralling Chekhovian piece of steady drinking: old friends who meet almost daily, a table set with variously-empty beer glasses and whisky chasers. It’s sifting memory and desire and faltering at both.
We’re in a seaside bar. Day’s melancholically-amused Alfred is much given to re-examining his memory. He can’t remember a Scottish weatherman of thirty years back, nor can his wife Joanie (but wait). He’s fatalistic, yet keeping dementia at bay by the act of naming. His act of remembering all those Ians and Mac (Reggie Maudling for ‘maudlin’, a failed aide-de-memoire) takes in respective wives, treads dangerous territories. Pountney’s more chipper laid-back Charlie navigates the Scotch rocks and shallows of sexual adventure: he listens. Alfred once pulled back from an office fling; and Charlie?
Well Charlie’s faithful to Marianne. Charlie’s own drop of interest in her (not beer) runs parallel to a thought – Marianne was sweet on Alfred. Alfred dismisses it, he’s unearthing something more definite.
Both married to dancers, they were in the production side of showbiz and the dialogue, overlapping, often fast-paced and elliptical, snares that wisecracking domain, wild with all-sorts regret.
So as desultory memories and blurred drinking conflict, we’re drawn by Day’s terraced voicing and reach, his uncertain-seeming questions coming round again with a flinty undertone of danger; with Charlie’s mettle tested to twanging point. Has Alfred kept Charlie in his place as deputy for a dark reason?
Pountney’s a fine baffled foil to Day’s cracker-barrel pronouncements and regrets. Charlie confides frank details on his marriage, but this relationship clearly runs on something else: a habit of acquiescence. Today things take a different turn. And there’s tomorrow. And chaser.
I wrote in 2017: ‘There’s more than enough residual wisdom in these characters to make us want to see what they, not Cole, will make of themselves.’ In fact we find out from both.
We’re with those wives, though why define them? Catherine Humphrys’ Joan is visiting Judy Clifton’s Marianne at her home – a sumptuous affair of sofa and comfy chair, a coffee table in between and behind, stage left of the chair sideboard with photos of their past smile complacently in black-and-white. Perhaps Pringles are called for, though Marianne’s getting through two Sauvignons and one bottle of gin a week.
Humphrys plays straight-talking Joan, a straight woman to Clifton’s circling Marianne, as if she’s the satellite in her own home and the stable Joan is the one who’s staying. Well…
The reverse or negative of the situation Alfred probes with Charlie is brought up, and you might feel lower-status-playing Marianne (Joan was dance captain, they’re still recalling those dancing days; once they get up to them) might be upending things: rooting out a discovery of her own.
In very funny sideswipes at marriage we find out that’s been stated plainly between them years ago. Though Joan confirms she knew all along the Weatherman’s identity, and wasn’t going to give Alfred the dissatisfaction of finding out. Let him keep guessing. There’s revenge there. Cole very neatly resolves all the potential plot-points we might have entered with. And Joan, who might be on one level rather dance-captain, is one who confesses all. But can she keep secrets?
What hasn’t been resolved is the 40 years of marriage, what Marianne’s going to do. And Joan’s ultra-comfiness with the status quo. Humphrys is excellent at striking notes of head-girl through frightened child at change, the crust of her assurance hinging on a nice cup of tea, or what she expects Marianne will get Charlie – his favourite Shepherd’s Pie. Marianne does something else entirely. And after gasps at her first, she reveals a second secret, one keeping her tethered; to the town at least.
An Occasional Cup of Tea
Two years later, the same room: all four assemble for Alfred’s birthday which was in fact the day previous. Charlie and Joan bustle round with Pringles and Bombay Mix, plenty of drinks, and guests worthy to be there. Alfred arrives. Day has transformed the chipper still steely strategist of Weatherman into a red-faced wreck. Alfred’s had a stroke and at 73 is a shadow of himself. And still a shadow of that shadowy man who persists with the deepest passion into telling a truth, a declaration he’s wanted to make for years.
Joan, always coping with Alfred, seems not too unhappy with the new status quo. Marianne though is expected. There’ve been many changes; Marianne has been authority itself in her choices; no-one quite expects the deepest utterance of all from Alfred. Except Marianne perhaps. Certainly she’s the only one who can deal with it.
Day’s transformation is in its way as astonishing as Charles Laughton’s transfiguring scene in the original aborted 1936 I Claudius. Day’s wrenching out of his stroke to hammer down his truth is extraordinarily convincing, the man stripped bare of everything but the way his truth works, Lear-like in self-recognition. This is phenomenal acting.
Close to him the mercurial and au fond self-recognition of Clifton answers Marianne’s similar need to discover and act on her own truth. Her naturalistic hip-shooting answers, overlapping the conventional Joan in wild gyrations, always circling a world like a tethered ghost till she flies free, complements Day. These two characters are on a final quest; it’s not as neat as anyone might think.
Day’s work with the RSC is just one headlist of the four actors’ distinctions. Pountney as director also plays off Day’s relentless and roundabout-cunning, with palpable quiet reliefs of his own when the heat’s off in a slow-spread smile. He manages to convey the contentedness of a man happy with anyone and no-one, so long as he’s comfortable. And he generally is comfortable, a peacemaker who sometimes starts wars.
Humphrys anchors Clifton’s dipping and soaring till she has to let go, her character Joan bewildered at a troop member not obeying her dance captain. But she’s loyal. Cole’s consummate in showing how whatever conflicted loyalties each person shows the other in this cat’s cradle of frayed companionship, there are some secrets you won’t betray. And there’s no easy resolution.
The set’s stronger than many can be in the confined space of the Rialto (a refurb and fundraising is underway, take note). The acting is frankly West-End standard. I’ve elsewhere praised Hare’s The Vertical Hour, an exceptional revival in the same space a week ago, which redefined characters and play in subtle ways.
This premiere in extending Cole’s writing from one short to a three-act Chekhovian elegy for the dance of age, is in a defining league of its own. A superb play, it should be as one director present said, in the West End. And these actors would look even more in place. To say it’s some of the very finest acting I’ve ever seen at the Fringe doesn’t do it justice. It will tour from July. Keep looking out for it.