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Brighton Fringe 2024

Low Down

Do we ever really lose our mothers?


‘The Tower’ ticked a lot of boxes for me.   I’m a great fan of J G Ballard, especially ‘The Drowned World’ and ‘High Rise’.   The first is about the aftermath of the sort of rise in sea levels that Global Warming holds in store for us; while the second considers life in an isolated tower block, with individual apartments like cells, where the inhabitants become aggressive and feral.   Real dystopian fiction.  I could see elements of both books here.


‘Waterworld’ gives us another horrific future – once again focusing on the breakdown of civilized society in the face of climate change.  Human beings are innovative survivors, and when civilization collapses – when the power goes down – some will form cooperative bands, while others will turn to an earlier, more tribal, form of existence.  


When the shit hits the fan – looks like it’ll be a choice between committees or warlords …


As well as a reviewer, I’m also a yachtsman, so I’ve sailed up close to the great stone and steel towers set in the approaches to The Solent and the Thames Estuary.   Massive structures, hundreds of feet high, built as defences against Napoleonic or German invasion.   Most are abandoned now – but they would still provide perfectly habitable refuge when all else was lost.   


Oil rigs, too.   These things are built to withstand extremes of North Sea storms, so they’ll last  for centuries.    (though there’s an irony in the idea of using the very tools that extracted the hydrocarbons that will cause climate change, as a kind of lifeboat …)


And then there are mothers.   Mine died in 2000, almost a quarter of a century ago – yet I still catch myself referring to her in the present tense.  She doesn’t talk to me, exactly – but her strengths (and her foibles) still exert an influence on my actions.


Toni’s mother does talk directly to her.  Fran has taken up residence in Toni’s head, and they argue constantly.   Fran was a strong woman, as was HER mother, Toni’s grandmother.  That woman survived a rape, only to use the rapist’s scissors to cut Toni’s umbilical cord after Fran had given birth.  Although we mostly see Fran as her daughter’s interior projection, Sarah Widdas brought the woman to life as if she was standing in front of us – aggressive and hectoring, certainly;  but all done out of her deep love for her child and her concern for Toni’s wellbeing.  


She’s dead now, but when we first meet Toni and Fran she’s alive and they’re hiding on the top floor of a tower block, with the water rising and the constant threat of violence from marauding bands desperately looking for whatever food is available.


There’s no power, of course, and their few remaining batteries are running out, but there’s a hunger for normality, for how things used to be; so the two women entertain themselves by performing bits from films they remember – sitting against the brick wall acting out the driving scenes from ‘Thelma and Louise’ …


In a regular theatre, that brick wall would be a painted background, but this performance took place in the barrel-vaulted space above Brighton’s Fishing Museum.   Aged red bricks, curving over our heads, with Fraser Smith’s atmospheric lighting splashing over the vault’s wooden floor.     Director Debbie Fitzgerald had chosen to do the production in traverse, with audience on both sides of the space, and just a wooden pallet set in the centre. 


Toni and her mother have argued constantly about whether the young woman should leave their tower – bitter words as disputes between generations often use.  Eventually Fran herself dies, and her daughter sets out on a small wooden raft, that pallet, to seek a better refuge.


Isabella McCarthy Sommerville is an inspired choice of actress for Toni.   The raft is tossed by the waves and the girl is burnt by exposure to sun and wind.  Her only means of propulsion is a short plank she employs as an oar.  Sommerville can do physical theatre superbly (when she played in ‘Wisdom of a Brighton Whore’ she had to give birth in the Brighton surf …) so when she’s head-back, slaking her thirst with rainfall, or straining her arms to pull her small craft through the water, I could almost see the sweat, and the blisters.   It reminded me of ‘The Life of Pi’, where the boy is adrift in a small boat.  But here there was no tiger, just a bag of battered rusty tins of food – and a broken tin opener …


This is probably the point to introduce Lorraine Yu.  I last saw her in ‘The Writer’s Mark’, a piece about Kafka directed by Natasha Higdon.  Here, though, we first met her at the show’s opening, singing a haunting song in Portuguese, while stringing a berimbau.  That’s essentially just a pole, with a wire attached – a delicate-sounding musical instrument – that can also be used as a weapon, in the martial art of Capoeira.   


Protean, like its owner.  First she was a singer, next she’s some kind of mermaid or selkie that Toni encounters on her raft.  Yu is also a very accomplished dancer – Charlie Hendren did the choreography for the production, but it was Lorraine Yu’s sinuous movements that seemed to incorporate the very motion of the waves as she danced the accompaniment to Toni’s spell underwater.   My sole caveat for ‘The Tower’ is that I found this segment a little hard to follow – but that didn’t really matter as I was swept along by the atmospheric music that filled the space, complementing the graphic images of water projected on the wall.  A truly immersive experience (pun intended!)

Eventually, Toni’s raft reaches another tower, and she’s taken inside by Viv.   Now we saw another facet of Yu’s talents.  Viv is Toni’s rescuer, but she’s also a hard-hearted survivor, and she understands that there’s no place for compassion in their refuge.  You have to work hard, and obey the rules.   Fran is there too, of course, inside Toni’s head, and Toni talks to her mother a lot – to the bafflement of Viv.   Fishing is hard, strenuous work, and the production made great use of lengths of heavy hemp line from the Fishing Museum displays downstairs.  I won’t easily forget the image of the three women hauling, straining with the load as they pulled in the nets, and the rich smell of the rope filling the space … 


‘The Tower’ is written by Emma Kelly, and her work (the programme tells me) ranges across Sci-Fi, horror, historical and political genres.   She’s very much at home with the classic Post-Apocalyptic tropes, but she’s also got a keen sense of how human nature manifests itself in political structures and organisations.     There seem to be a number of refugees in this tower, but the only authority figure Toni meets is Viv.    Viv denies it, but it seems that there is a stratification within the tower, with more privileged people living nearer the top, and receiving more food.   Is Viv actually the overall leader, or is she simply an underling, a middle layer to deflect criticism from the real rulers?


The author’s writing plays on the politics of the situation – the human questions about how this community should be run.    Fran – though of course she’s really Toni’s own thoughts – constantly goads her daughter to challenge the system: to demand more equality.   But without a strong overall leader can the group survive?    The conflict – as much psychological as political – made for gripping theatre.


At the end, Toni has given birth to a daughter of her own, Ray – fathered by Ben, another of the refugees, who’s left the tower.  But that was years ago now, and Ray is grown up.  A Ray of hope?   Toni is getting old herself now; hasn’t left the tower for years, and when she slips, getting onto a raft, it’s Ray who hauls her on board.   


So the cycle repeats itself – Toni’s daughter is the strong one now, but in her mind Toni can still see her own mother, Fran – “As you’ve always been. Preserved. In an airtight bottle in my mind.”  A/B Smith had underpinned the action with very atmospheric music throughout the production,  as well as graphic projections; but in this end sequence, his use of violin strings was incredibly moving.    As the notes died away, the audience members seemed lost in contemplation for a few moments, before producing thunderous applause.


Do we ever – really – lose our mothers?