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Brighton Fringe 2024

Low Down


Texas history is also the history of the Hispanic population that has lived in the territory since its first exploration by Spanish Conquistadors 400 years ago.   But the land itself hasn’t changed …


In the Playwright’s notes in the programme, Steven Dykes talks about the Texan people’s ‘awe’ of the land.  I can see why: Texas is enormous – it’s almost three times as big as the United Kingdom – thousands and thousands of square miles of unforgiving terrain and merciless weather.  An inspired adaptation by Dykes: to shift the setting from Lorca’s brutal Spanish landscape – and society – to a similar one in the New World.  Different continents – same intractable problems.

The ranchers and farmers who settled there needed to be tough, and to have a belief that what they were doing was good.  Good in the eyes of God.     And the Beckmans: Edridge Beckman and his wife Lillian ( going by the name his family were probably German immigrants, leaving the old country to find the space to make their own way, and to practice their own religion ) had their Baptist faith to support them.   As most of America outside the big cities isn’t overly blessed with bookshops, their community had only The Bible – the Calvinist reading of the King James version – to give them guidance.   Certainty of belief.  Certainty that they were part of The Elect: chosen by God as recipients of His Irresistible Grace.


But in my case I am in ‘awe’ of an even more powerful force.  The power of life itself – that force that produces the overwhelming need for life to reproduce life: for sex – that finally overcomes everything in its path, regardless of the consequences.


When we first saw the Beckmans they’d just come home from Edridge Beckman’s funeral.  The whole family dressed in black.   All six – the mother and her five daughters, in black dresses, black head-coverings, black stockings, black shoes.  Clutching their black-bound bibles as they praise the Lord.  “Amen! … Amen!”


To me they looked like a murder of crows – sinister …  


This scene was indoors, in the living room of the Beckman ranch – but it was a perfect decision of Director Conor Baum to stage the production in the large open air auditorium at B.O.A.T.   By placing the action outside the confines of a small enclosed acting space, he gave us a sense of the immense emptiness surrounding this isolated community.


The titular head of the Beckmans had just died, but it was clear that the driving force behind this family was his wife Lillian – now his widow.  In these communities it’s rare for a woman to challenge the dominant cowboy culture, but this woman has managed it.  Like Bernarda Alba in Lorca’s play, Lillian understands that the most important goal is to protect, and develop – the land.   Of the Beckmans’ own union, we learned later that “His people hate hers – only married in the first place to get a bigger spread ”


One of Lillian’s daughters, Agnes, is engaged to be married – to Antonio Hernandez, the son of a nearby landowning family.   They are Hispanic, heirs to the culture – and sophistication – of Mexico, south of the Rio Grande.   The family are nominally in deep mourning, but Madeleine Schofield made Agnes look happy – she’s thinking of the future, not the past.    Meanwhile, down at the front of the stage, Roisin Wilde as Adele seemed … smug – as she played with her fan.  A fancy red fan, the kind you’d be more likely to find in Mexico rather than Texas.  An early clue that Adele might also have a Hispanic beau … obviously a gift – which shocks her mother as being wildly inappropriate to the occasion.


Then there were the household staff.  Birdie McLean was the senior, a long-time confidant of Lillian, even though she’s in her employ.  Sharon Drain has a wonderfully expressive face, and as she turned to us she was able to telegraph her indignation or disgust at some shocking piece of gossip that was revealed in the family’s conversation.


What she hadn’t heard, though, was Clarice Bledsoe’s memories.  She’s the junior of the two maids, with a husband – who she’s not fond of and who beats her – and a young son.  Once she was alone, sitting on the long dining table, Rosanna Bini began to reminisce about her dead employer.  It’s clear that she had had a long-standing sexual relationship with Edridge Beckman – “We sure got us some use out of this old table …”   There’s a child, too – “I got me something out of you for always – and it’s mine!”


So this upright – uptight – Baptist community is actually seething with desire – for sex, for land.  Deborah Kearne gave a towering portrayal of Lillian, striving to “keep out corruption – in whatever form it takes”.   But as in Lorca’s original, she’s predestined to fail.  The times are against her, too.  It’s the nineteen-fifties, and the men have come back from the War with wider horizons – “Daddy had his head turned round a bit”  –  he’d bought a radio, and when Lillian’s absent, popular music fills the room as the girls dance to the likes of Elvis Presley.


There are a lot of parallels with Brian Friel’s play ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’.  Five daughters in a religious household in the west of Ireland, living a life about to be changed out of recognition by the modern world. That one features a radio too, with nineteen-thirties dance music being broadcast into the remote community – “all the way from Dublin”.  There’s a youngest daughter in that one: Rose, who’s a bit ‘simple’.  In ‘Homestead’ we had Amy Lynn.  Lexi Pickett was completely believable as the slightly baby-voiced sibling who never quite understood what was going on.


And there’s a lot going on.    Amy Lynn witnessed the ranch hands  – the boys – going off towards town with some woman, in a truck, and when they came back near dawn, “she had hardly any clothes on!”     Later on, we hear ‘the boys’ preparing to go into town for what sounded ominously like a lynching.   It seems some other woman had killed her baby, and buried it.  But the child’s body has been discovered.  They are blaming the father: they know who it must be – “They just know …”   This was the Jim Crow era, remember; before the time of Civil Rights, and it sounds like the father was black …   Perhaps it was the fear of discovery that made her do away with the infant.


What of the other daughters?   Rachel Mullock’s Mary Beth hates men – gave a powerful delivery as she told us how she was revolted by the very thought of their sweaty faces and stained hands.  Loved her father, though – doted on him, and he indulged her passion for horses and the outdoor life.   But although she’s got intense religious faith she doesn’t want the domestic role her sex – and her mother’s belief – demands.  “Horse and a whip for a man. Needle and thread for a woman.”  


The beauty of the family is Adele.  She knows it, and the others know it.  

It’s just that they don’t know – yet – that she’s secretly sleeping with Antonio Hernandez … 


Mara Lee Beckman’s poisonous.  Ava Gypsy managed to give her facial expressions and a body-language that perfectly  portrayed her schadenfreude.  She’ll cause trouble wherever she can.


And at the end – she did … though Mara Lee was driven by sexual lust, like so many of the others.


I won’t give away the play’s climax, except to say that it has the inevitability of a Greek Tragedy, and it’s catastrophic for the entire family.  Conor Baum’s direction made full use of the entire B.O.A.T. auditorium, with actors moving right up to the top tier of seating.   Wonderfully visual – but it wouldn’t have been half as effective without the sound – the music and the acapella vocal effects – the haunting spiritual hymns – arranged by Temisis Conway and Martha Pavelich.


Utterly believable performances by every member of the cast – but it was the B.O.A.T. setting, and the overall scale of the production, that made ’Homestead’ an unforgettable contribution to Brighton Fringe.