Brighton Fringe 2023
After All These Years
Close Quarter Productions in Association with Theatre Reviva and Holofcener Ltd. Co-Producers Giles Cole, Alexander ‘Sandy’ Marshall, Associate Producer Julia Holofcener
Venue: Lantern Theatre, Brighton
Festival: Brighton Fringe
Giles Cole’s extending from one wistfully comic short to a three-act Chekhovian elegy for the dance of age, is in a defining league of its own. A superb play, it will now reach the West End.
Directed by Graham Pountney 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. Press and PRT Dani Maimone at AimHighPR
Till June 2nd
Then touring to Minghella Theatre, Quay Arts Centre, Newport, Isle of Wight June 21-14th, then rightly at Jermyn Street, July 17-29th.
This is one of the three outstanding productions I’ve seen this Fringe, but it’s travelling too.
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 came in his trilogy After All These Years, first staged at the Rialto in 2021; of which the original play is the entrée, neatly missing the definite article. Cole has like Ayckbourn, constructed a work in three acts of cumulative force and seriousness. 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 revival of a new work I’ve seen in this Fringe.
Weatherman is a two-hander featuring Jeffrey Holland’s Alfred and (as in 2021) Director Graham Pountney’s Charlie. Originally set in 2002, it’s 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. Holland’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 recalling 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?
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 Holland’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 Holland’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.” Even more than 2021, we find out from both.
Suddenly this play deepens. We’re with those ‘wives’. Judy Buxton’s Joan is visiting Carol Ball’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.
Buxton’s plays straight-talking Joan, a straight woman to Ball’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; you might feel lower-status-playing Marianne (Joan was dance captain, they’re still recalling those dancing days; once they get up to them, a highlight) 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, wasn’t giving 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 43 years of marriage, what Marianne’s going to do. And Joan’s ultra-comfiness with the status quo. Buxton 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. More even than 2021, this overlapping dialogue – in these actors’ hands – pins you back with its truth.
An Occasional Cup of Tea
Two years later, the same room: all four assemble for Alfred’s birthday – in fact the day previous. Charlie and Joan bustle round with Pringles and Bombay Mix, plenty of drinks, guests worthy to be there. Alfred arrives. Holland 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’s 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.
Holland’s transformation is in its way as astonishing as Charles Laughton’s transfiguring scene in the original aborted 1936 I Claudius. Holland’s wrenching out of his stroke to hammer down his truth is unnervingly 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 Ball 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 Holland. These two characters are on a final quest; it’s not as neat as anyone might think.
Pountney as director also plays off Holland’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.
Buxton anchors Ball’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 Lantern space. Acting is frankly West-End standard.
Cole’s extending from one wistfully comic short to a three-act Chekhovian elegy for the dance of age, is in a defining league of its own. A superb play, it will now reach the West End.
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 June 21st, first Quay Arts Centre, Newport, Isle of Wight, then rightly at Jermyn Street July 17-29th. Keep looking out for it.