Brighton Fringe 2023
An outstanding script, with consummate acting. It ought to make London.
Directed by Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon, Set by the Company, lighting in collaboration with Latest 7 Bar.
Thanks to Louise Clarkson, Seth Morgan, Zoe van Spyk, Ellery Mitchell, The Unmutual Society, Six of One, Roger Kay, Peter Chrisp and Lisa Wolfe, Richard Edes, Eliza Skelton and Presuming Ed’s
Till May 9th and May 14th 2.30pm.
“Who is No. 1?… All shall be revealed.” In just three days at the start of the Fringe, the Latest 7 Bar has hosted two outstanding plays, both begging for productions in a space doing them full justice. Richard Crane’s Anna & Marina is succeeded by Brian Mitchell’s and Joseph Nixon’s Who Is No. 1? It’s rare to get scripts of this calibre, and outside a few little theatres I’ve not seen such promise to an opening Fringe since 2016.
Nevertheless Mitchell and Nixon, famed on television and for award-winning shows like Underdogs and Those Magnificent Men have again surpassed themselves in Who Is No. 1? Pulsing with research worn lightly, you might’ve guessed it features The Prisoner from the other side of the lens: the 1967-68 ATV series starring and ultimately helmed in every department by ‘mad’ Patrick McGoohan (Murray Simon), the Number 6 hero of the series. This all-male four-strong cast bring such attack and variety to their script you simply relax and watch a wholly believable mayhem erupt.
How do you finish an unfinishable series, based on a now timely premise (originally by script-writer George Markstein but ultimately by McGoohan himself): can you be free when computers possess every detail and number of your life? “I’m not a number – I’m a free man!” is an epochal cry of defiance against the encroachments of an AI-aided state. Familiar?
It goes deeper than the Village, populated by disaffected spies from over the world (suggesting a world state) who know too much. In each episode Number 6 tries escaping, brought back by a giant white balloon-mounted vehicle, Rover. Naturally The Prisoner asks existential questions, summed up by a Cabby who unwittingly utters it believing he doesn’t understand a word. As Fuseli put it, we’re prisoners of our own invention. McGoohan wanted to make just seven episodes, each self-contained, not a series but open-ended. That’ll work.
Simon not only inhabits that famed white-piped blazer. Towering like McGoohan he exudes danger, the Irish baritonal snarl – with its American fleck – and sibilant purring contempt. Which was for 99.9% of humanity. Scenes move fluently without a jolt, and Simon too flows into RP when briefly in TV scenes. Simon anchors and energises with a phenomenal performance mainlining the glowering presence McGoohan was famed for – with a hint of violence whilst making a pacifist film. And a languid humour. Happily he’s not bouncing off the walls on his own.
He’s abetted by hapless colleagues: pre-eminently ATV cigar-chewing boss Lew Grade (Ross Gurney-Randall) “It’s simple” Grade tells American CBC Exec Michael Dann. “I just do everything he tells me.” Gurney-Randall’s superb, exuding the easy authority and paternalism of Grade, and his occasional daft gambits. To that same American, he exhibits Charleston moves he and his brother became 1926 champions for – in America too. Gurney-Randall also plays baffled bufferish Nigel Stock (famed for Dr Watson), perplexed he’s even there. And others including a truculent – almost scene-stealing – treat of that Cabby at the end. Gurney-Randall’s the go-to for such avuncular roles: but his pitch and variety mark him out.
Gurney-Randall’s principal role as Grade though, traces the arc between anxious indulgence and resigned strategy. The play’s calibrated to key points in how Grade – like the nameless authorities McGoohan ultimately cites – has himself to bow to pressures above. He needs not seven but at least 17 scripts for The Prisoner, or Dann says no deal for CBC who really want 36. It furnishes the first tripartite comedy between these two and McGoohan.
Gurney-Randall’s Grade is at first protective, optimistic, funding something he doesn’t understand either, indulgent at jokes aimed at him. Grade’s affection will take a lot of killing off. Gurney-Randall is riveting, fully Simon’s equal. Their duetting scenes fizz. You believe you’re watching what happened.
Increasing desperation means Grade even calls McGoohan in Hollywood at 4am local time – where he’s shot off for two months to make Ice Station Zebra to raise funds! In the meantime, you’d never guess who’s meant to be Number 6 in his stead, Number 6’s brain transplanted whilst they all wait for the upping-the-ante-hero’s return.
Actor/writer Bernard Williams, producer David Tombin, that Detroit American Michael Dann and others are all taken by Robert Cohen – who specialises in American accents (he gets wary Detroit right too, it’s not New York). His cash-stripped producer Tombin is exasperated, and Williams harassed – that’s nothing to the way his petulant reporter is picked up by the scruff and shaken by Simon. The excellent Cohen gives some of his finest performances, one might say, of recent years.
And you’d not credit Rumpole would be so terrified he required another man in the room with him every time he met McGoohan. The McGoohan who sacked everyone and injured camera crew – “an accident”. So Brian Mitchell takes on a terrified Leo McKern, whom Simon enjoins to punch him back next time they do seven hours in the ring – a series of (offstage!) takes leaves McKern terrified. He’ll never work with McGoohan again. But McGoohan wants him back. It’s consummate. Mitchell’s key role is clear-eyed if harassed writer George Markstein – the only one prepared to resign first. Here Mitchell keeps the temperature lower, quietens mayhem to deliver truths to Simon’s character.
McGoohan’s a quixotic character and his career is sketched here. Hailed by Orson Welles – whom he damns for failing – he gave what Ibsen scholar Michael Meyer and others heralded as the definitive Brand (extant on an old BBC film from 1959) and 88 episodes of Dangerman (1960-68), making him the highest-paid actor in the world. He refuses to play Bond because his Catholic scruples prevent him kissing a woman not his wife. Anyway, he hates the violence… Refusing to continue Dangerman, his control-freakery and integrity are ultimately traduced not from outside – but by his own imagination in the way he tackles the final episode, when suddenly Number 17 is going to be the last episode. How Simon’s McGoohan treats this has to be believed. And Grade’s attempts to move McGoohan on and rescue him are poignant – and extraordinary. As is the historic outfall.
The set’s simple – Latest 7 Bar’s black box is spacious, allowing seating on the stage itself. There’s period lime-green chairs and a few props like a drinks cabinet (liberal amounts of coloured water and even water actually drunk), period-pink flight-bags of clinking alcohol traipse behind Simon as he boards flights exiting stage-left skirting the audience. Use is made of the space as particularly Simon is prone to race down aisles. Sound – primarily the TV theme – is focused and clean. Lighting markedly improves in the second half – not a fault to lay on the creative team in this instance.
This is an outstanding script, with consummate acting; the phenomenal Simon – and Gurney-Randall – at its core. This should evolve beyond the Fringe. It ought to make London. It deserves awards. There’s an extra date for Sunday May 14th at 2.30pm, as the second day, the 9th is already sold out. Be seeing you.