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Brighton Fringe 2022

A Very Great Mischief

Unmasked Theatre Company

Genre: Comedic, Costume, Drama, LGBT Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Rialto Theatre, 11 Dyke Road, Brighton


Low Down

Written by Harriet O’Neill. Directed by Joanna Rosenfeld, Set by the cast, Lit by the Rialto team.

Till May 18th.


It’s 1921. A terrible war lent a wild permission to liberated acts, sexual expression. In a postwar world still banning homosexual acts, there’s no equality. A 26-year-old’s finds her namesake Queen helps. That Victoria flat denied the existence of same-sex love between women. Which leaves the younger Victoria outside the law’s reach, but unacknowledged.

The viciously reactionary Joynston Hicks is Home Secretary. We’re six years away from the prosecution of Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. ‘I would rather give a healthy young couple a phial of prussic acid (cyanide) than let them read this book.’ Odds are stacked.

Directed by Joanna Rosenfeld, produced by unmasked theatre, Harriet O’Neill’s title A Very Great Mischief derives from the establishment’s frustrated fury, who at least realise it’s difficult to police women too, as well as turn even more draconian in a changing world. Sounds familiar.

The scene’s a simple chaise-long in the centre, some cups and gesture of a kitchen stage right, otherwise an uncluttered stage. There’s one prop that turned comical. And the Rialto’s aisle is used imaginatively. And there’s an attractive range of period costumes including – well, we’ll see.

Karina Mills’ Victoria loves and lives with Margo Henson’s Celeste. All’s not entirely well, despite their rapturous loving. Celeste knows it’s not enough to be the muse of Victoria’s writing talent. Victoria wants her reactionary parents to acknowledge her love, which is a tad difficult since bar sending a small allowance they refuse to speak to her.  They have a nice daughter to cajole and project onto.

This is Rosanna Bini’s Jayne – who Victoria’s just invited down to say and confess to. Will Jayne ever speak to her again? Bini’s character though isn’t any more in thrall to her parents’ vires than Victoria. The touching ‘of course I knew’ from Jayne is straight out of the 1980s but sometimes happened in the 1920s too.  It’s not just confession Victoria wants: she wants to marry Celeste and there’s a touching proposal. How on earth, in 1921?

Bini’s character exudes sense, Bini putting across a warmth and matter-of-factness in contrast to the lovers, whom she almost trips over, quite unfazed. Henson curves and sashays round Mill and Bini, deploying her French like perfume, even engaging in French badinage with Mills. Later Henson has some serious French speaking to do. Victoria’s not the only one who needs to confront.

Mills plays an occasionally languorous but more conflicted character, straight moves to Hansen’s curve-ball. Her face studies conflict, Hansen’s a more straightforward passion.

Now Jayne and Celeste make common cause to get Victoria to confront those parents. Bringing a large pot plant with him – it’s an effective prop – Ross Gurney-Randall’s harrumphing Leonard Hardacre can only read newspapers. Not that his wife, Marian Hardacre’s Sarah Widdas is a consummate communicator. And what communication there is from the world – letters – are put away to read later, if at all.

Gurney-Randall’s always sovereign in the tainted avuncularity of a corrupt statesman, or a decent lord under a Shakespearean king. Here he’s reaction itself, performing an act of oblivion over anything not in The Times.

Widdas is immaculately frozen, her only gambit to support her husband in rescuing their ‘decent’ daughter, but otherwise the stilted relations between these two are brought out in their scenes – though slightly undermined by bringing on and taking off that pot plant, which raises a laugh each time it’s done: funny this play is, Faydeau it ain’t.

Those parents are in terror. Will Jayne be infected? A letter from Jayne prompts them to mount a rescue mission. The comedy of trying to ignore the existence of Victoria and Celeste whilst visiting, Celeste’s kisses of greeting, Victoria’s hesitations, her final spectacular way of confessing and Jayne’s ‘she’s the best thing you two ever made together’ are the kind of things to get an audience clapping. And there’s a particular heart-warming finale.

Winner of the Rialto New Writing Scratch 2020, it’s a joy to see this play mounted in the Rialto. The company make the most of its space, and little of its restrictions, though five actors on the stage with two distinct locales meaning a trooping-on-and-off of different colours so to speak, can be a clattering affair. Rosenfeld clearly has the measure of this hour-long drama, and transitions are seamless.

O’Neill’s play deserves revival. It’s a light-touch play of serious matters, deft, warm-hearted, makes you want to cheer. The sunburst of the end is glorious and there’s a natural use of the aisle that aisles are designed for. Language is relatively period-free, with useful smatterings of the 1920s. There’s little essential conflict, but what O’Neill never does is retrofit what we hope might happen to the older generation now. The Young Idea gets it, and that has to be enough. Look out for this play when it returns.