Brighton Fringe 2023
A profoundly joyous and a joyously profound show, touching on all those issues of assimilation, marriage drift and acceptance; as well as self-discovery. For most of all as Erin Hunter brings out with sparkling wit and straight looks, this is about women’s agency. Dive in, you’ll surface with a whoop.
Director Adam Lenson (Public Domain, Southwark Playhouse, Vaudeville Theatre; Stages, Vault Festival), Dramaturgical Support Sarah Sigal, with lighting supplied by Caravansarai, Costume Support Akshy Marayen, Kristin Duffy. Voiceovers Shai Matheson
Producer Kristin Duffy, Slackline Productions, Production Support Kelsey Yuhara
Till June 4th
Ever felt like a surfboard out of water? Writer and performer Erin Hunter answers that by plunging in – returning to the Fringe with her 2019 Popcorn/BBC New Writing Award-nominated Surfing the Holyland, directed by Adam Lenson. It’s at the new Brighton Fringe-owned Caravanserai, St Peter’s Church. It’s a must-see.
Based on a true story Hunter’s crafted – no crested – a perfect wave of trial and disaster. She plunges you with hilarity to the bottom where you really wonder what might drown protagonist Heather, then whether she’ll be forever blowing bubbles, coming up for air.
“Think Bridget Jones on a surfboard in the Middle East” the hype says. Yes, though it’s a more socially-engaged deeply-layered piece, and asks sometimes uneasy questions.
It’s 2018. Ohio-born Heather has converted to Judaism for husband Zach, who started out a jazz player on a promise to Blue Note Records, but ends in IT. There, he’s seduced by a frum French friend to emigrate to Israel. Heather’s not to mention the C-word, her conversion. As in Zak’s new Orthodox circles Heather’s not really a Jew.
It gives rise to her first ukulele-strummed song (with beautifully-struck chord sequences) ”I Am a Jew”. There’s four of these goofy winners (all garnering whoops of applause); including the appalled “Kids” third, where Heather’s the only one not producing babies.
Enough of IVF already, Heather begins to wonder what she’s there for, made to feel an outsider. Her husband begins to treat her like one too, as he’s increasingly drawn to Orthodox Judaism. Still, there’s a secret he’s not told his new friends, quite apart from Heather’s.
It’s a story of alienation, accommodation and acceptance: and its lack at different times. But it’s also one of new friends, new amities and finding just a few who might share your world. As for your world-view, Heather’s in for a shock, especially when she discovers herself on the West Bank without realising it.
At a time – 2018 – of profound crises for Israel with the yellow-face her parents voted for (as she reminds them) moving the US embassy to create the very dangers said parents whine about, what price being a Liberal when everything’s turning extremes? And there’s bits of Gaza rocket to negotiate, though (as we’ll see) surfing folk feel the sirens and surf them anyway.
Solution, surfing. Heather floats along the beach to discover wondrous apparitions, with all the gracile ease Heather lacks. She’s given lessons by Udie, charismatic, sexily-toned instructor. Hunter’s in her own element here – hilarious, brilliantly physical, suggesting every way of falling off a board using four plastic boxes (themselves talented multi-roling things); there’s hardly a moment to swallow water, let alone tread it, in this 75-minute heltering down a wave of euphoria, right to the bottom.
And bumping into very illuminating grumpy people. Watch out for Moshe and what he reveals, and that super-grump instructor Heather doesn’t want to rub against. Hunter’s lighting team and sound have clearly synched this to a nicety as Hunter effortlessly jumps voices and narratives with a virtuosic sashay, leaving not so much as a wet towel.
First she’s hopeless, then… and not just that. Heather turns out a mean crafter of surfboards with her new friend Marilyn. And there’s uber-friend Rachel back home, one of those terrifying Forbes 30 Under 30 people, telephoning huge advice about how to be not just Jewish, but uber-frum when entertaining. Oh, and you must be honest. Use paper plates too.
Hunter’s at home strumming, singing and slamming Heather’s irritation and voicing the gallimaufry of people thrown against her, though voiceovers by Shai Matheson help occasionally. With the sound-splitting Israeli Air Force, sirens and the shouting Israeli way of grabbing your space.
Then Heather’s bewildered parents, who return early to Ohio. And then there’s a kiss. And a Seder meal, and revelations. And finally, well, an actual surfboard. Except, it’s not actually used as surfboard but an offensive weapon. Watch out for that. The front row might get interesting.
This is despite everything both profoundly joyous and a joyously profound show, touching on all those issues of assimilation, marriage drift and acceptance; as well as self-discovery. For most of all as Hunter brings out with sparkling wit and straight looks, this is about women’s agency. Surfing here is naturally a metaphor, a discovery, a real thing, not just displacement.
Slackline Productions specialise in putting the stories of women 35+ centre stage and Hunter and her team hit several of those pluses into the square holes they don’t quite fit. Quite brilliantly. Dive in, you’ll surface with a whoop.