Brighton Year-Round 2019
Written and directed by Philip Ayckbourn, designed by him with David Rankin (lead designer and builder) and Tim Freeman, including lighting and sound. The music’s composed by Roland Bryce. Wardrobe by Gerry Cortese, Alison Soudain and Wardrobe Team, with production manager Sue Tait, stage managed by Joanne Cull and ASM Anita Kettle.
With Philip Ayckbourn we’re used to the futuristic and time-travel. So the paranormal can’t be far behind. Coming straight after his father’s Haunting Julia of 1994 produced here in September, Psychic Connections is rooted in a bar show Ayckbourn saw at the Stephen Joseph in 1987: an adaptation by Stephen Mallatratt of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. It went on to do rather well. Indeed it’s currently again in the West End.
Psychic Connections is a classically-conceived split-period chiller: then haunting now. The events of 1886-89 in the Old School House, Cranleigh, Surrey still ripple. Homeless people drifting into the condemned building report crying; a woman with a gunshot wound. Victoria Brewer’s Trisha Watkins is a professional TV psychic determined to release whatever’s there. And perhaps herself.
It’s why Lucas Augustine’s bumptious Craig Philips crashes in for the sake of ‘5G’ to await her. Only to be surprised at the arrival of his ex-lover of 15 years back Ollie (Olivia) Reeves (Kristy Howell). She however is furious this sexist sleazeball is there at all, and guilty. Since she took him from her vulnerable younger sister Emily (Emily Feist) whom she’s not seen since. He however has and taunts Ollie.
Watkins arrives assuring them that to free themselves they must free their previous selves, the protagonists of 1886 that centre round the death of 25-year old Alice Stokes, wife of headmaster Benjamin, after the arrival of Martha Jennings who became his mistress. You might feel Philips and Reeves fit these latter two well, but there’s a twist. No prizes for guessing who Alice Stokes might be, but where is her avatar, at the other end of a clandestine call made by Watkins? And what will happen when subjects regress under Watkins’ influence – to them and others? Oh and it’s all being filmed, to be subsequently edited. Opportunity to act out. We then sashay between the events of 1886 and now.
Written and directed by Philip Ayckbourn, it’s designed by him with David Rankin (lead designer and builder) and Tim Freeman, including lighting and sound. A plain schoolhouse interior, lower half Brunswick green, the upper white (a standard survival into the late 1960s) there’s a fireplace stage left with a motto inscribed above, an entrance stage right and another door backstage right. Backstage left there’s a staircase with a locked door at the top, where crying’s heard. Impressively built it’s also austere. There’s no décor, only sparse furniture. A chaise-longe and on occasion chairs, a table set with tea things; little else.
The impressively atmospheric music’s specially composed by Roland Bryce. Wardrobe’s by Gerry Cortese, Alison Soudain and the Wardrobe Team. An impressive array of two male period costumes and four female (Howell dons a beige and white, Barfoot blue, and Feist essentially white, with Brewer in purples and violets). Contemporary clothing’s low-viz casual.
The scornful Philips agrees to co-operate solely for money and takes no interest till he has to; but enjoys taunting Reeves, even now keen to seduce her. Reeves though is sympathetic from the start, believes the narrative and co-operates fully. She feels there’s something to atone for, in this life and perhaps the last. Howell’s particularly fine at conveying a complex of anxiety, guilt, tenderness, scorn for Philips and fear. There’s an economy of gesture, a glance; a reveal you can see in her eyes.
The two are required to don period costumes to induce feelings in themselves, and indeed in an audience, Watkins suggests, when this is screened. This doesn’t mean they’re wearing what their 1886 selves are, and there’s an even deeper reason for that. Philips – Reeves suggests scornfully he was a groundsman or PE teacher at best – is predictably truculent and aggressive. At one point he has to be bribed with an extra 1K to stay, then Reeves offers him hers to; then finally the whole amount: £12,000. Augustine warms from truculence to menace and throughout gives a nattily nasty account of Philips. He’s impressive too in never going too far; so when menace really baulks, it’s a contained ferocity. Lastly, he unleashes beautifully into panic.
The 1886 narrative is simple though comes with twists. Emily Feist’s Alice Stokes was left the school by her father (her mother died young) and married Chris Parke’s anxious Benjamin. Quite vulnerable, and as he claims ‘not passionate between the sheets’ she’s a lot more vulnerable when Sarah Anne Barfoot’s Martha Jennings arrives as assistant teacher ‘to help’. Immediately Jennings goes about seducing Benjamin and suggesting his wife can be gaslighted, spooked into an asylum, then often a repository for ‘difficult’ wives.
Benjamin’s clearly no monster and agonizes, tortured by lust under Jennings’ spell. Like Howell, Parke’s one of those sovereign actors who convey their part’s character through a suggested inwardness. His Benjamin’s clearly a man torn between lust and conscience, screwing up his face for instance, though never too much. He doesn’t want Alice to suffer. Ayckbourn’s particularly good at conveying a pathetic anxiety not to ‘hurt’ Alice when Jennings brushes away his concerns with cursory reassurance, ratcheting up the tension. Her true intentions indeed alter as Alice proves ‘difficult’ to dislodge.
Benjamin consents to Jennings dosing Alice with what he discovers are hallucinogens, inducing paranoid visions of demons quite rapidly after they’re applied. There’s a crafty art in their delivery here. Even when Alice refuses a dosed tea she later takes it after trying to dismiss Jennings and is quickly transformed. Jennings, on the point of dismissal – Benjamin’s away – can triumph, But why is she found shot, an apparent suicide? And why does Benjamin die of consumption shortly after? It does Jennings no good we discover at the start either: she dies in a fire in 1889. We get the events chronologically, the latter stages by lightning as it were (and stage lighting), flashes of the fates of three protagonists. Ten seconds of fire is well suggested. There might have been elsewhere a finer distinction between both periods in the lighting.
Present-day reactions each time Philips and Reeves come out of their trance are mixed. Reeves is shocked at what she discovers about her past self, prepares to embrace it and move on. Philips is the one spooked, though in full denial.
Brewer is superb as the tricksy Watkins, a medium on a mission with a hidden past-life of her own. She’s tricksy for the best reasons and there’s a meeting of three minds at least.
Barfoot’s an impressive Junoesque figure, dominating even Parke’s presence. She possesses a sterling voice too. Her challenge is to persuade us of seductiveness; she can’t quite manage this in a regular stentorian beat. Perhaps too Ayckbourn might provide more of a backstory. How Jennings obtained hallucinogens – from the doctor who’s always kept away? How did she apply for this position – has she left anyone, and in what condition? Ayckbourn’s left Jennings a one-note pantomime psychopath and it’d take a very experienced actor to insert light and shade. Barfoot’s a little hampered by this, and by that lack of vocal shift. Doubtless she’ll present greater colouring in future.
Feist’s Alice is strong in conveying a sensitive young woman of conscience: only unhinged when under the influence of hallucinogens. Like Brewer’s Watkins Feist brandishes unexpected vengeance, a fragile vein of ferocity all her own, torn between present-day and knowledge of the past. Ayckbourn manages tension well by suggesting Feist’s Emily Reeves persona might have much fun with an old gun. Feist’s Alice character moves seamlessly – and powerfully – from anxious sanity to a faux-possessed soul out of The Crucible. Indeed these scenes and Jennings preying on Benjamin because his wife’s cold sexually, echo that play. There’s several reveals by the end, and a strong aftertaste of justice, rather than vengeance. And a crumpled IOU someone drops in their flight helps.
Ayckbourn charmingly notes the fate of The Woman in Black. half-joking his own contribution might end up in the West End too. Why not? Ayckbourn’s plotting here is tauter and twistier than before. If he can perhaps touch in a backstory or two with a very few words (less than thirty?) he’d add richness to an already well-wrought play. If Psychic Connections isn’t as original or thought-provoking as (particularly) Loving Androids, seen last March, that’s genre. And Ayckbourn here plumbs darker recesses which he’ll probably mine further.
Psychic Connections deserves a professional production, but surely this premiere firmly establishes LLT as a superb try-out for new work. It’s as if a new chapter’s opening in its – quietly lustrous – story.