Brighton Year-Round 2022
Directed by Gaby Bowring, Neil Hadley, Stefan Haselwimmer, Tobias Clay, Production Manager Ian Black, Set Design and Set Construction George Walter, John Everett, Simon Glazier, Lighting Design & Rigging Strat Mastoris, Carol Croft, Will Scott, Sound Design Ian Black, Costume Design The Directors
Stage Managers Carol Croft, Trish Bayliss. Light Operation Alex Epps, Sound Operation Gaby Bowring.
Poster/Programme Strat & Tamsin Mastoris, Production Co-Ordinator Tom Kitch, Photographer Strat Mastoris, Publicity and Marketing Emmie Spencer. Health and Safety Ian Black.
Till October 15th
Harold Pinter A Kind of Alaska Directed by Gaby Bowring
That bleaching-out often felt and seen in Pinter’s later work evens stretches its icy fingers to the title, which comes from one of the characters. Dating from 1982, and influenced by Oliver Sachs’ studies in Encephalitis Lethargica – occasioning the book and film Awakenings, It well describes the state Deborah (Janice Jones) finds herself. Waking she’s told 29 years after falling asleep at 16, and intermittently walking, more or less sleep-walking at most ever since. Now an injection by her devoted doctor, who turns out to have known her a very long time, is someone she fears is her jailer. Simon Massingham’s attentive, ministering Hornby though seems nothing of the type. She’s older, but still young, he says.
He produces Deborah’s younger sister, Pauline (Sarah Donnelly) who inhabits the small anxious role of a woman who’s told she’s aged and grown breasts. Hornby, whose first name we suspect, she doesn’t recognise at all. Hornby later tells Pauline in an aside, when asked, to tell truth and lies, not simply one or the other. Truths leak out.
Pinter though withdraws and problematises the situation. Is everything quite as it seems? Perhaps. But Deborah veers between childish six-year-old banter through to sophisticated talk – she’s told she’s very intelligent – seemingly beyond even a bright 16-year-old. Jones though has the measure of this piece starting blank and reserving her breakdown and terror of whatever face she’s now imprisoned in (though she can’t see it, she oddly feels it) as in a sense she’s not out of the nightmare of waking up into early middle age. She sees glass halls closing down. It’s a claustrophobic world, narrowing to a terrible acceptance.
This is a bright telling. Not easy to bring off, tone above all, the actors have the clarity and rationale. Jones brings a convincing shudder and crisis to her role. The bleak choice of bed and virtually nothing else is undistracting. Bowring makes an assured debut.
Shaw How He Lied to Her Husband Directed by Neil Hadley
How He Lied to Her Husband (1904) is one of those curtain-raisers to a serious Shaw play rattled off as an aperitif. One might say to another: all Shaw fizzes, if at times darkly.
This one’s notable for its postmodern hinge: the poet and married woman he loves are to go to, no not Lohengrin, no tickets; but Shaw’s own Candida, now ten years old. Again. Much reference, including to the fictive husband’s boxing prowess, skitter over the next few minutes. Poet Henry Apjohn seems a little more grown-up than the mewling fop in the 1909 rarity Misalliance. In truth he’s a cut-down Eugene Marchbanks, Candida’s admirer, and Aurora – bored, worldly – is no Candida.
That comedy’s repeated as farce. Here it revolves around the loss – or theft – of a sheaf of poems and the work’s true admirer. The banishment of (offstage) sisters-in-law too seems a memorable imperative.
Director Neil Hadley might well have seen the Orange Tree’s celebratory Shaw Shorts, coming out of lockdown in 2021. Hadley clearly relishes Shaw. Catie Ridewood even resembles the OT’s Dorothea Myer-Bennett a born Shavian. Leading Shavian women can adopt a languorous voice switching to banter and back to savage aside in a warm glow. Champagne or steel, Aurora must sophisticate the ear. The experienced Ridewood is poised, amused, and can catch some of the half-lights. Languor and reserves of fun are more elusive in downstage emphasis.
Like Ridewood, Matt Foster’s strikingly ideal-looking Henry Apjohn making his NVT debut is required to navigate the higher bluster of Shaw’s poets; which he does with some bounce of wondrous self-pity against Ridewood. Foster’s clearly fining his feet quickly. He needs to modulate his extremes, and he and Ridewood are still to find that sweet-spot silliness of abject lover and dominatrix in stays that Shaw lavishes on his plays.
Talking of lavishing, the set’s props range from chaise-longue to broken fan and the beautifully-sourced dress of actors who look born to the roles.
Mickey Knighton’s Teddy Bompas turns out every bit as knockabout a boxer – without the scruples of Candida’s husband. Admittedly he has the most delicious part, and in some respects the easiest. He’s also the most convincing. Knighton can unleash a faint touch of menace in his furies. His outrage isn’t reserved for the obvious. In fact it’s not Aurora’s stratagems that work here, but the grace with which everyone needs to act.
Martin Crimp Face To The Wall & Fewer Emergencies Directed by Stefan Haselwimmer
Here’s a team that bar one actor (returning after some while) are new or very recent to NVT. Choosing Martin Crimp’s work brings a mix of absurdism, litanic repeats and language as self-modifying and destabilising as the same phrase bones between the thee actors – Maximilian Logan-Wright, having worked in Manchester now making an assured debut; Justine Smith, returning after a spell, Olly Lloyd-Hooker making like Logan-Wright and the director his NVT debut. All named ‘Characters 1-4’, the trio figure in both short plays. Haselwimmer lets his actors pace Crimp’s language in an unhurried but focused environment.
Face To The Wall discovers the three characters on a picnic, one (Lloyd-Hooker) strumming a banjo, litter strewn elegantly, as the relive the day a man under no provocation and living. A perfectly happy life shots six people – four of them children – dead in a school. The way each modifies, supports and otherwise encourage Logan-Wright seems to re-enact the disturbance of the character they’re reliving. ‘Don’t tell me’ Logan-Wright repeats, getting more and more agitated, developing trigger-reactions analogous to the psycho who went in with a gun. As a parable about how role-playing and entering into others’ lives taint those who do so with the same poison, it’s stark and potent. Logan-Wright is a convincing advocate, occasionally more highly-wrought than I thought he might be on occasion, but that’s perhaps subjective: he’s otherwise consummate, has the major role and is unnervingly good at being taken over by the man he invokes.
In Fewer Emergencies the same actors take a chorus role, sitting in three old theatre seats seen in the downstairs foyer. ‘Things are definitely looking up–brighter light–more frequent boating–more confident smile–things are improving day by day–who ever would’ve guessed?’
Again Logan-Wright takes the lead, the edgy character who, having talked of ‘this emergency’ tries the palliative that over all there’s ‘fewer emergencies’. It was written in 2005, just as we were subjected to several.
Smith’s role – she later takes on the banjo – is smaller than the others, though she has nominally two roles. I’d like to have seen her used more but Smith is convincing as a chorus.Lloyd-Hooker is compelling as a naturalist actor, his small riffs wholly assured, completely truthful.
It’s good to see these two plays, rarely performed, brought to the NVT. A fine performance of these two works was mounted in 2015 at the Brighton Fringe by the now-disbanded Wyrd sisters, with physical acting and brio. The stillness here is different, more solid, more differentiated, equally valid.
Chekhov The Evils of Tobacco Directed by Tobias Clay
The best is held till last. John Tolputt is Nyykhin, literally ‘nobody’ who in this early Chekhov short from 1886, is tasked by his wife to give a public talk on the title’s evil – tobacco. Only he likes tobacco, doesn’t want to be there, laments his bullying wife and their 33-year marriage, isn’t so enamoured of his four daughters aged 17-27 who nevertheless remain in their turn bullied, attendant and unmarried.
The imagined audience is subjected to every displacement activity the self-pitying, devastatingly-self-knowing failure of a man, in his own estimation, can give. In Tolputt’s hands it’s diverting and dismaying. A general dogsbody and the teacher of all the subjects at his wife’s so-called school, he gains little credit and much self-contempt. The result is painfully hilarious.
Tolputt’s sovereign in this. I can’t think of a better performance. His mix of confidence, servility, petulance and sheer despair is a masterclass in tragi-comedy a character straying out of a later Chekhov play, creating one fitful work of his own. At least in it, he triumphs. But what’s that? Tolputt’s inflections communicate instantly. His wife has returned. He picks up the coat he’s just stamped on, slinks back into role.
Tobias Clay too deserves credit for allowing Tolputt to breathe his role so completely, with a minimum of distraction. Tolputt and Clay often know that the best telling lies in staying still. You fix on him and don’t move.
The plays are enthralling. Curiously, the only one I’ve not seen before is the last. This quintet’s been an excellent showcase for NVT directing talent, and it’s hoped this format – resembling one at the Orange Tree Richmond before the pandemic – will return. Acting and direction has been carefully arranged so accomplishment keeps pace with the later, shorter, more verbally naked and finally solitary performances. Absorbing and a small feast of theme, acting and writing style.