Brighton Fringe 2023
As someone who lists one of her pastimes as ‘spite’ Julie Burchill – who’s written the play Awful People with Daniel Raven – seems in remarkably forgiving mode. It’s a benign intergenerational tussle. Burchill and Raven have built up chuck-lists of late boomer assumptions. When the crisis arrives, outcomes are well-devised and pacy.
Directed by Carole Todd, Lighting Chris Daniels, Set and Costumes the Company, Artwork Angie of Colourfast
Till May 25th
As someone who lists one of her pastimes as ‘spite’ Julie Burchill – who’s written the play Awful People with Daniel Raven – seems in remarkably forgiving mode. Don’t expect this four-hander to deliver it then. Wit, yes.
Directed at the Latest 7 Bar by the legendary West End choreographer (and director) Carole Todd, it’s a benign intergenerational tussle. Middle-aged lyric/songwriter Aonghas (Seth Morgan) and song-composer India (Deborah Kearne) are separated due to his drug habits, but amicable. They’re getting back together to write a rap musical – just outside their generational ambit, you’d think.
Drink-druggie Aonghas has undertaken a detox, so(r)t of. India holds their IVF last-chance twins, and Ukraine refugee and ‘home curator’ Galyna (Temisis Conway) holds India together, with the twins, offstage crying (voiced by Burchill herself).
Whatever they think of themselves, Aonghas and India are profoundly privileged though it takes others to tell them how to count the ways. That’s easy. They need the young like oxygen from an iron lung, so collect them.
Tensions surrounding Deliveroo Gideon (Joseph White) who takes an hour to collect the money for the smashed avo he’s just delivered, reveal rather more. Gideon and Galyna know each other, both are highly articulate, so a range of tired assumptions get knocked down.
Some from Aonghas truly are racist, others from India drip with entitlement like amber jewelry she bought in a 90s Camden Market spree. Middle-class liberal-wannabe tendencies comes as for instance Aonghas assumes Gideon will be involved in Black Lives Matter. In fact Aonghas gets dangerously close to voicing its opposite.
White’s crisp and clear, warm, engaging, knows how to pace a telling judgement. He currently speaks too rapidly at some points – this will alter by the time you see this, as well as the generally very slow pace, something inherent on first nights. Billed as around 60+ minutes, it’s closer to 72.
By the same token Galyna’s never been asked about what profession she had, or whether she had one at all. Sharp, mordantly funny on occasion, Conway holds her aces close, a study of wry observation and quick resolve. It’s a quietly riveting performance, since Conway knows how the rhythm of a second-language person from eastern Europe tends to stay quite deliberate till roused, and edges her character to revelation.
Galyna reluctantly, accusingly, lets information scald as it falls; India can only murmur. Though Galyna’s not finished with mere recitation of her plight in 2022, as circumstances force her hand.
Morgan is consummate as seedy downturned Aonghas, a professional whiner-and-diner at age, but capable at least of bridging generations musically. Morgan’s particularly fine at hurt innocence, bewildered responses to how others see him, and hideously bland in Aonghas’ racist assumptions, sicklied over with a pale cast of liberal.
One climactic moment folllows his dance with Galyna, to a piece he composed, interrupted by India. But without real animosity from her. Any sexual tension it might have is muted; it seems Aonghas knows his limits. Later the quartet take it in turns to couple off and twirl.
It does mark a moment of amity, one quality Burchill and Raven deem missing in their ‘awful people’ – a question they ask themselves of themselves, at the moment of crisis.
Kearne, like Morgan deeply experienced, especially in the One Fell Swoop Project of recent years, judges India’s just complaints to a nicety: her equally acute comments on Aonghas, and equally blind entitlement. What Kearne manages expertly is not to make her character shrill. Her tone’s fully within the range of India’s blasé pseudo-liberal, quasi-nimbyism (Ukraine yes, Afghanistan no). It comes in taking Galyna as a fixture and Gideon as a quasi-fucks-ture, so to speak, someone to at least admire and objectify.
Burchill and Raven have built up chuck-lists of late boomer assumptions. When the crisis arrives, sudden responses from Gideon, whom they thought might be holding them hostage (they’re that blinkered, that objectifying), Galyna and the outcome are well-devised and pacy.
What happens, the quartet in extremis, is worth seeing too. The play doesn’t so much impel as arrive, with eddies of conflict, arising, subsiding in a subsong. Chekhovian on a good day, it reminds me – in tone, structure and freewheeling ethos – more of some 1970s Plays for Today. Not an insult, as their crushing under Thatcher was another cultural disaster: ‘Scenes from an Execution’ as Michael Billington labelled the 1980s, taking his title from Howard Barker. I’d like to see this play again, when pace picks up.
Well-lit by Chris Daniels, with excellent Artwork by Angie of Colourfast, the company-designed set too is functional. The Latest 7 seating in the upper bar means sightlines are difficult and many of us make do with actors’ heads. Packed on first night, the normal downstairs theatre mightn’t have coped. A simple platform though would make a difference, since despite the actors’ general clarity, many at the back couldn’t hear.
It took much digging to find creatives details, though unlike most QR codes (the elegant programme alas didn’t add much save Todd) the four actors and their roles were listed under the code itself. Most QRs don’t do this, and whoever decided on that should be praised for an actor-friendly innovation; since most don’t access QR.
The two experienced actors as you’d expect are first-rate. The two newcomers impress too, with that caveat noted above. Awful People will soon pick up pace. Recommended.