Brighton Fringe 2023
An absorbing, extraordinarily well-written short play on letting go of your identity, the part giving it meaning. It’s also excoriatingly funny. On a mundane level, it’s case of ‘work won’t love you back’; on another, to quote the Narrator, this work’s not a noun but a verb. In addressing how we live up to the transcendence we create for ourselves, it affirms the unanswerable. The finest new short play of the fringe.
Writer and director: Chris Brannick, Set: Karen Kirkup, Lighting: Gabriel Magill (of Sweet Venues), Company: Two Foolish Productions
Till June 4th
“Once upon a time there was a boy who found music… Then a man… but stopped playing and became a musician instead. At some point in our lives, we stop being verbs and become nouns. We define ourselves by what we do to earn money… “ Chris Brannick’s two-hander I Believe in One Bach opens at The Poets Smoke and Ale House SweetVenues, directed by Brannick till June 4th.
Second-violinist Alan Gottlieb, the boy who became a musician, isn’t – according to old college peer now famous conductor Suttini – playing well. In their fifties, Alan and sparring-partner Maggie Draycott have been placed in “Excellence in Action” review: in other words, on warning to being dropped after 30 years in their London orchestra.
It’s an absorbing, extraordinarily well-written short play on letting go of your identity, the part that seemed to give it meaning. It’s also excoriatingly funny, Brannick most famous for comic scripts. Despite the comedy though, this is a passionate, absorbing, immensely sad work: but also transcendent. Touched with more than a little Chekhov.
Chris Brannick plays Alan, Karen Kirkup takes the truculent northern Maggie, omniscient Narrator, anxious manager-speak CEO Betsy Plowright and the great vodka-sodden Elizabeth Hofstader, legendary violinist whose body gave out so she became a renowned teacher. And her pupil Alan’s last court of appeal.
Suttini’s voice is pre-recorded. Lighting – Sweet Venues’ Gabriel Magill – and sound-sequencing is faultless. Bach’s B minor Mass excerpts play throughout in running order, as it were. Its movements – cited by both actors throughout like glinting filaments – subtly illuminate the drama’s themes.
For set we have Karen Kirkup’s interchangeable white wooden boxes, like podiums or desks: undistracting storytelling pitched with variety.
The Narrator exudes a seraphic litany, repeating the same phrases, nudging the narrative about the boy now a man (suggesting anything but), a benign counterpoint to petulant, frantic shoring-up of identity, as Alan undergoes crises and surprises us with what he sees.
Brannick’s three main protagonists are charactered with sardonic badinage, insults that caress with wry loving. Maggie and Alan: “Well knock me down with a conductor’s fee” Maggie opens, “I didn’t know you were interested in music” she adds as they take up positions. “Rub me up with rosin and draw me across a G string, it’s renowned drunk and apart-time fiddler Maggie Draycott.”
You get the tone. Maggie rallies: “If the management could get away with putting a mic on one of us, the other even would soon be stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s.” It’s defensive, they’re the last of their kind. “I’m the only person you talk to now” Alan admits.
Though the works leavened with this and Elizabeth’s wit, the real tenor of this play, and its language lies elsewhere. After a variety of run-ins, Alan’s propelled to Elizabeth, a richly-drawn figure somewhere between Frances de la Tour’s personas and Beryl Reid’s Connie Sachs, friend of Le Carré’s Smiley. She’s the hinge from badinage to transcendence: “Let yourself in, you unhelpful prick.” Adding a foul litany of dead plants under which the key is. “The devil can’t afford my fees, darling… You could have given me warning, you little shite. Vodka?”
This shifts notably past Alan’s audition, to details of Bach: “not a single wasted note, not a drop of ink there that shouldn’t be there” through coughing: “My God, Alan, there was blood last week… My God Alan, don’t grow old.” And finally “I don’t know what to say. What happened to the Alan whose tone colour could persuade the cherubim and seraphim to caress his thighs?” Her admonition is a benediction: “You’re a long time dead, my darling. Live while you can.”
Alan’s character transforms under the pressure he puts himself through. For instance he finds himself in a church, joined oddly by Maggie. Quite what happens is something you’ll need to see. The language is sustained to the end, the memorable trio created by Brannick will stay with you too; the Narrator’s presence is poetic, almost anaphoric, with a beatitude-like incantation working against barbs and pings of outrageous G strings.
Brannick knows how to play an air on the Air string too (he’s a violinist). He’s absolutely believable as the petulant, gifted, faltering Alan, and his ordeal is truthful, even frightening. Kirkup excels at different voices, Maggie’s and Elizabeth’s wrought with the right tang and wonder. As Narrator she’s watchful and watchable, with such lines beginning: “The church is dense with angels…”.
More importantly, it’s a very human play that both interrogates artistic identity: “All (Bach’s) ever done for you is to make you feel inadequate.” And of course affirms the opposite, and Alan has an answer. On a mundane level, it’s case of ‘work won’t love you back’; on another, it’s not a noun but a verb. In addressing how we live up to the transcendence we create for ourselves – here, in playing Bach – it affirms the unanswerable.
It transfers to Edinburgh. I could imagine this expanding as a play from 50 to say 60-65 minutes, perhaps with one other actor. But its essence is short and there’s no padding here: it’s packed with musical knowledge worn wittily. If it was on at, say, the Finborough, it’d garner many stars. As it is, it’s the finest new short play of the fringe. Do see it here.