Brighton Year-Round 2019
Pairing Jez Butterworth’s 2012 The River, with James Fritz’s radio play Comment is Free, Brighton Little Theatre present two short productions with different teams. The River is directed by Paul Morley, making his directorial debut. Comment is Free is directed by Sam Chittenden. Sets and sound as well as back projections are designed by Steven Adams, who operates lighting. Lighting design’s by Steven Adams and Stephen Evans; and lighting and sound operation by Mimi Goddard who’s also assistant director for The River. Set painting’s by Tom Williams. Ann Atkins designed the costumes for The River, whilst Helen Malloy designed those for Comment is Free. Evans is also stage manager and ASM for The River is Millie Edinburgh. Also for Comment is Free Deej Johnson provides Special Effects and Neil Hoskin video editing, whereas Dan and Jo Henderson provided a film location. Eleven actors and theatre-makers are thanked for providing a net of voice-overs.
Brighton Little Theatre have form with double bills. And providing tonal contrasts, which they certainly manage here. Pairing Jez Butterworth’s 2012 The River, with James Fritz’s radio play Comment is Free, is going literally from oil lamp to neon. The latter work was first broadcast in October 2016 though it had a rehearsed reading at the Old Vic 16 months earlier.
Butterworth’s The River is an intimate short work between the blockbuster Jerusalem (2009) and The Ferryman (2017). With his debut Mojo (1995) it seems Butterworth’s most successful with such large ensembles. Yet after an early hiatus as a screenwriter, he’s continually drawn to isolated locations and disturbed, faintly criminal characters in such plays as The Night Heron (2002) and the Pinteresque The Winterling (2006) soon to appear at NVT. Parlour Song (2009) though an even smaller three-hander was a move away, and The River another three-hander returns to isolation with a greater assurance.
Rob Punter’s The Man is introducing Mandy-Jane Jackson’s Woman to his world of fishing and ritual preparation, in a hut his uncle once owned. There’s something he doesn’t know. There’s something she wants to know. She resents being made to read a poem ritually, a Ted Hughes (she’s been reading Woolf’s To the Lighthouse) and vanishes next door. Punter’s Man is frantic, calling the police, but she’s back.
Only it’s The Other Woman, Cata Lindegaard, an American, who in contrast to Jackson’s sexy northern truculence is exuberant and high on some donated drugs. Every time something exciting happens she says, she has to pee. She seems disinhibited, kissing a fisherman she met ‘and then a blow job… but no more, since I don’t get intimate on a first meeting.’ Is she twitting The Man? She wants total union: she’s urgent, ardent and for now living in the present.
The Man relieved she’s back then sashays between these two women, as each disappears in two time frames elided together into a single narrative which has been repeated – how many times? The Man with a mixture of commitment-phobia and controlling repeats secrets he’s never told to anyone, except its to both women at different times.
We get the Other Woman in fact predates The Woman, whose honesty includes stripping off high on a rock and diving into water, alone. She’s the one too with a shocking confession about trout fishing. There’s much ritual discussion of The Priest and all the setting-forth of lines and sinkers. Do these matter more to the Man?
Each woman discovers a robin crashed through an invisible chimney and releases it to an uncertain future. Each woman comes to the same conclusion, having found a portrait of a woman in a scarlet dress with her face scratched out. And there’s a scarlet dress hanging up, which at least the Woman discovers. Each Woman wants honesty. Surely she’s not the first. The Man swears each is.
A comment on loneliness, obsession, commitment-phobia and the way men attempt to force women into their patterns, and what women want in return is ritualised into a vaguely Pinteresque feel ghosting out of Old Times. But it’s a very different play. Instead of the instability of memory and character, it’s how repeating a complete sequence with two characters alternating between shows up the hopelessness of the Man’s quest. And there’s a surprise.
It’s a fine work, less given to the powerful gestures of the works each side of it, more to the intimacy of perennial mismatch and maleness. We’re distanced from the individuality of each character though more than enough is provided for each. Intense sensuality, restraint, deep feeling, all flitter across and seem destined to be soused in the river’s chill. It’s a brooding piece, and realized superbly by the cast and crew.
Jackson’s earthy directness and fearless questing, Lindegaard’s more volatile, spontaneous Other Woman manage to differentiate characters whom Butterworth invests with liminal distinction. Punter’s projection of taciturn intensity is here ideal.
The River is directed by Paul Morley, making his directorial debut. Sets and sound are designed by Steven Adams, whom operates lighting. The River’s is a beautifully-realised, solid hut, with a window centrally backstage emitting a greenish rainbow light. Stage left there’s a cooking range, and right some shelves, with a table nearby. The first near-argument is about moving it. Each woman occupies the rocking chair for significant periods.
Lighting design is by Steve Adams and Stephen Evans; Adams also designed back projections and sound. Lighting and sound operation’s by Mimi Goddard who’s also assistant director for The River. Set painting’s by Tom Williams. Ann Atkins designed the costumes for The River. Evans is also stage manager and ASM for The River is Millie Edinburgh.
Comment is Free.
There’s always a challenge in adapting a radio play. Under Milk Wood after some initial criticism triumphed as a stage work. Comment is Free is directed by Sam Chittenden, who remains faithful to Fritz’s directions.
Fritz, who’s written some superb theatrical works like The Fall and Parliament Square is here constrained by the 43 minute Radio 4 rule, and an unlimited number of characters playing small parts – a recent, welcome BBC initiative calling upon a repertoire of actors and indeed here real newsreaders and Jonathan Dimbleby.
The play palimpsests hundreds of voices. Fritz opines: ‘It should feel noisy – things should overlap, and not everything needs to be heard.’
Columnist and political commentator (think late columnist AA Gill, Nigel Farage and a dash of BNP), Alistair Cooper, who’s constantly in the news with inflammatory opinions. ‘Shut up Alistair Cooper’ comes the refrain as the screen lights up and words in red black and white irradiate over the fuzz of extinct old-fashioned TV interference.
Cooper’s voice is heard only through his answerphone message, though Jason Lever intones this for a while. There’s a reason later on and it’s Fritz’s coup that’s all we hear of Cooper. His public persona’s built up and rubbed down as it were with an array of hostile voices ranged against him. One threatens to ‘murder you and your wife slowly and then drown your daughter’.
Cooper’s wife, Hilary, a QC played with poise and real dignity by Charly Sommers insists her husband’s public persona is a ‘panto version’. He’s unrecognizable in the ‘real guy at home’ who, she says, is ‘a wonderful husband… my favourite person on earth’. You really wonder at the super-smart Hilary separating this from the venom-emitting public man.
There’s been a felicitous gender-change too in siblings. So when Hilary’s sister, Bea (excellent, exasperated, but supportive Ellie Mason), warns her that Cooper’s public image is galloping off effectively into neo-fascism (this was just before the Brexit split), and people are ‘very upset’, she dismisses it testily: it’s a shocking denial. But then something happens to Cooper, DC Pinner (Barbara Halsey) and PC Houghton (Stephen Evans) arrive. Public opinion rapidly, unpredictably shifts. At one point the neighbour Emma Watkins (Abigail Smith) is suddenly monstered for some footage she’s taken. At another Liz Gibson’s editor of Cooper’s columns asks Hilary to add her own. All the cast are fine, though Sommers and Mason carry the central roles with moving naturalness.
It’s a felicitous, clever comment on free comment, though not no-platforming- Fritz doesn’t explore that. Fritz closes up avenues of remorse, taking down videos for instance, or taking back what’s said. It’s both chilling and true in affect. And indeed the very different Jo Cox was killed shortly before the play aired.
The set this time is minimal, buff and light wood, a couple of chairs and table, vase, and a backdrop onto which Deej Johnson provided special effects, Neil Hoskin video editing, and Dan and Jo Henderson a film location. Eleven actors and theatre-makers are thanked for providing a net of voice-overs. Helen Malloy designed the costumes.
Chittenden’s superb at realising Fritz’s directions. My only caveat is that her own natural gift of creating choric effects is a little constrained. Though other voices were used for the sound envelope, the actors are under-employed, being the nature of the BBC piece and its new policy of using actors for tiny parts. Could they have been amassed on-stage in a riotous palimpsest, or even audibly off-stage – since it’s a diminutive space which seems with the BLT’s brilliance to expand like a Tardis? It did effect a distance though absolutely pristine and as clear as Fritz could wish.
In any case, bold brave, and mostly beautiful work: a consummate double-bill.