Brighton Fringe 2022
Directed by Love and Madness’ Neil Sheppeck, designed by Luke Olfield and the team. Assistant Director, Lighting and Sound Designer and Composer, Francesca Boccanera. There’s sound effects Rialto orchestrate and which originate with Olfield and the producers. Not playing 13th. Till May 15th
A man in hi-vis lies face-down on the ground. A rather nervous woman from accounts stands over him, panicking that she put him there. ‘He was coming at me’ Alice explains to Lia, a young engineer, who’s horrified at the escalation.
‘Please don’t tell me you put down shibari expert as an ideal skill for the job. I really wish I’d have eaten properly earlier. I’m really regretting it.’
‘That’s what you’re regretting. Not the hostage situation?’
They’re all staff, but this is an oil rig, the Captain as the Installation Manager lies groaning: they could get life for terrorism.
Welcome to this premiere of Luke Olfield’s revised and shortened Accidental Birth of an Anarchist. That title itself owns a kind of slippage. Aurea Williamson’s Alice, the earnest, belated idealist is so terribly polite but a fervent convert to stopping climate change.
Pip O’Neill’s Lia, far younger but a hardened activist who knows the boundaries not to cross on peaceful protest. Then there’s Michael Jayes’ Captain they tie to a chair to stop him flopping, then to stop him frothing at the mouth whilst they consider options.
Stopping the drilling’s a tall order. But then there’s a storm brewing and nature has ideas. So does nature underground, provoking surges that underscore a very different response from the trio as they consider what to do about well ‘kicks’. Good job two of them are engineers. And that Olfield knows this terrain: it’s a technically absorbing tour round how to understand – if not sabotage – an oil rig. There are limits to his sources!
Then there’s the pizza. Though finally allowed to radio (Gabriel Thomson throughout, a live offstage fourth character), it’s clear Captain’s colleagues don’t listen to anything, not even the pizza order which has to be sent through vents in tupperwear when the outer door’s accidentally locked for two hours.
Now more tautly directed by Love and Madness’ Neil Sheppeck (who once directed Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Dario Fo’s play giving the title here) this comes to the Rialto via Rising Tides and Olfield’s and O’Neill’s Unmasked Theatre. There’s superb sound effects Francesca Boccanera orchestrates. It demonstrably adds to the tension. An earlier version was trialled online last autumn, but this version is tauter; and live shows inevitably lend a buzz all theatre feeds on.
Olfield and the team design the simple set: chairs, two desks with a laptop and console stage left and right. And a few props like rope and a large cloth. And of course pizza. Lighting’s designed by Boccanera too and furnished by the company and Rialto tech.
Characters here are neatly defined by writing and acting. Williamson’s Alice has both the fluster and polite fervour of the middle-class convert. The kind who’s not an extreme anything by nature, but who, as she points out, is typical of perhaps millions of moderate people who’ve woken to catastrophe. Alice, a naturally tidy finance whizz with a love of music-making in semi-professional bodies, wandered into a meeting on climate change and direct action.
O’Neill’s more battle-hardened engineer – they both obtained jobs through skills-bases, and they’re not alone – is by contrast more anxious: she has a life ahead of her, possibly in jail. Typical of later Millennials, she’s connected to how to organise: so also more possessed of a strategic vision.
Jayes plays Captain with a degree of patrician there-is-no-alternative lattitude. He’s not threatened, almost commiserates at some points with his unintended captors – he wasn’t meant to be there. But his arguments seem firm till perhaps… And then he shares two curious passions. He played recorder (hello Alice) and loves Formula One – Lia’s favourite sport. For now it won’t cut much oil, but there’s a long storm brewing.
Lia’s exasperation with Alice’s lack of sassiness opens just one avenue of both conflict and understanding. Olfield has managed too a triangle of useful tensions. Lia initially tells Captain she hates him (almost in the abstract), but they have more than Formula One in common: Leah understands the rig, what its dangers are, can spot them as well as Captain. And she shares a fundamental belief with Alice, whom she knows to be decent, principled, and slightly hapless. Nevertheless, Alice has arithmetical and other skills and they might just be what’s needed.
Happily Alice like us is the one needing some explanation. Thus PSIs and a gallimaufry of oil pressures, ‘kicks’ and a vocabulary of oilrig maintenance shoots past us as Captain and Lia find themselves in choppy waters. And it’s not as if Alice can stand by. Olfield builds a thoroughly convincing model of crisis and potential resolution from the technical fallout of storms. He’s adept too at integrating the choice of Thomson’s offstage but live fourth character, heard over the radio.
What Olfield manages is a convincing offstage drama of obdurate officials and one in particular who won’t listen to impending warnings not of anyone’s making but nature’s. To create a quadrilateral tension at this point is what makes this play gain weight and amplitude. Forces are clearly delineated, an offstage character given convincing agency.
There might be a little more character-writing here, since all go journeys on this rig and conclusions can be a tad abrupt.
That Olfield isn’t coming from a raw idealism, being long inside the arguments helps point up the complexities, even compromise, needed: so the trio grow accidentally closer in the anarchy of nature. Perhaps weather is always the accidental anarchist of itself. And sometimes harms itself in the process. More humanely though, the specific pressure of how to thrive in activism whilst government and late capitalism are arraigned against you, is addressed.
That Olfield humanises these forces in one man, and not make him a cipher, is an achievement, given most people’s stacked prejudices against oil. And it’s not that Captain makes a convincing counter-case so much as slowly listens through his laconic sense of what the outfall will be (shared by Lia).
Olfield’s also deft with not guying Alice’s awkwardness and ensuring that Lia’s hard-bitten idealism is shot through with vulnerabilities and decency. Such a play could tip either into preaching or distance itself with satire and inept activism. Olfield opts for neither, but allows each character to act as lightning rods for points of view, and allow the three dimensions of character and theatre to conjure the rest.
Exemplary performances throughout. A thoroughly absorbing play whose polemical agency is none the less tempered by the people it’s refracted through.