Brighton Year-Round 2022
Directed by Nick Bartlett and Nathan Ariss, Set Costume and Prop Design Sean Chapman, Technical Stage Manager Giles Wood, ASMs Nadia Bartlett, Lottie Johnson, FOH Sue Burchett, Poster and Flyer Designer Jim Stokes, Original Photo Tarquin Mills, Photo Design Nathan Ariss, Production Photographer James Weiss.
Hair by Gary
Producers Nathan Ariss and Sarah Mann
Thanks to Will and the Team at BOAT, Gladrags, Jonny Jones, Janette Eddisford, Sian Webber, Andrew Kay, Phil Hewitt, Ammany Mo, Jed Novik, Glynn at CRS Diaries, Neville from Sussex and Kent Farm Produce, David Stewart, Mandy Brame at Fabricate Decor
Till August 20th
‘Only yesterday I was hanging upside down out of a helicopter over Afghanistan snapping battles and having my arse nearly shot off by warlords – how the hell did this happen to me?’
Sarah Mann’s testily exhilarating Diana Trent is – as always -declaiming to another new resident at Bayview Retirement Village: Nathan Ariss’s Tom Ballard, at the opening of Michael Aitkens’ 2017-updated (from 1990) TV sitcom Waiting For God.
She equally pushes away her niece, Sarah Anne Barfoot’s Sarah Chase, a warm if exasperated study of someone receiving no fond return of love. ‘I want you to remember me as I was then, I don’t want you to see me crumbling like this.’ And Jane Edwards’ carer/resident mainstay Winnie Ikediashi can only tread lightly to the hand that feeds her – and resort to stern Christian precepts in self-defence, a neat touch.
Trouble is the food provided in return, is well, perhaps diced Labrador, as Sue Burchett’s old hippy Milly Dawkins claims. It’s almost her single line, outrageously bewigged. Burchett, also FOH, has more fun as a furiously-hatted Undertaker with white coffin and extras. Whose coffin? Do we know them?
Sarah Mann Company fans won’t hesitate and laughs come as thick as the superb one-liners in Aitkens’ sitcom shaped into a play. Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, Alan Bennett’s The Lady in The Van. You can see a theme develop, quite different from Mann and partner/co-producer Ariss memorably featuring in the dark (what am I saying, he’s always dark) Dennis Kelly’s Love and Money this May. Two plays turned TV or film, and reverting to their original plays. It’s first-rate popular theatre; these productions were first-rate too.
Set costume (changes too, particularly for Mann) and prop designer Sean Chapman keeps things otherwise fleet at BOAT with tables, three identical trellises that loom white and curved at the top like, well marble tombstones: they’re witty, perfectly-attuned. Chapman reverses them too (so we see why) in the big finish when several stops are pulled, including a gallimaufry of sumptuousness – rendering the end of this comedy worth savouring.
Praise too for technical stage manager Giles Wood, with lighting and sonics of birds that outdo real ambulances passing by – sirens so loud they interrupted two A&E scenes, and seemed so synchronous with stage action it’s as if the company has struck a deal with the NHS.
What of Aitkens’ own reverse script? Great one-liners, certainly. Mann and Ariss relish firing off lines like ‘cynicism is the condom romantics use against disappointment’ and so on. There’s some unresolved complexity suggested in Ariss’ character too, his sudden flights into an imaginary, hinted as dementia but snapped out of with no loss of cognition.
Ariss’s voice is almost worth the price of the ticket, and these two actors are consummate, as is the sadly underused Paul Moriarty, in his three blink-and-miss roles as Basil the Bayview Stud (paired off with Burchett initially, then something happens out of a minibus), brusque Doctor Henry, and finally, at last something for Moriarty to inhabit with brio: dithery Dennis Sparrow, doddering vicar who miraculously avoids residency in Bayview despite conflating weddings and funerals. That’s to anticipate.
It’s a brave choice, appealing to an inevitability lying in wait, garnering much laughter. The premise is laudable. The fault lies not in our stars, but in our dramatist.
Aitkens is clearly an able scriptwriter; the mostly very able cast bask in his one-liners. What Aitkens hasn’t managed (unlike Bennett, say, consummate in both mediums) is to craft a plot beyond its situations, a dramaturgy and through-line, bar a pay-off plot against the manager flowering at the end. And unlike Bennett, Aitken hints darkness but doesn’t plunge into it, save in two monologues Mann delves: fear of living towards death, including commitment. There’s one hilarious compensation later. Diana and Tom apart – with Tom breathed lothario life into by Ariss – we’re lent only able sketches for Sarah Chase and Jane Edwards, and bar Sparrow’s sharp if predictable caricature (perfect for the occasion) some characters difficult to invest in.
Well it’s a comedy. After the Beatrice-Benedick play-off and offstage clinch, there’s discussion of commitment, waiting for God, thus meatier storyline. Aitkens’ Tom doesn’t cohere, but it’s comedy, let’s not bother: Ariss has and he’s infinitely watchable. Trent if predictably feisty has life mainlined by Mann, especially with isolated monologues arising out of dramatic lassitude and subsiding – though the last does lead to a satisfying denouement.
The niece storyline has touches echoing The Vicar of Dibley with an apt conclusion to Act One. Again, Aitken chooses his climax well and Barfoot, Mann and Ikdashi as well as Moriarty provide an excellent finish. Choosing continuity touches nerves Mann’s Diana can briefly reflect on.
The excellent Jack Kristiansen often shines in roles with a touch of menace, magic or sheer strangeness. As hangdog cuckolded son of Tom, Geoffrey Ballard furnishes a neat example of how unlike a son can be, though again it’s a bit of a straitjacket role with less of a glint to allow Kristiansen to unravel him.
Ikdashi’s Jane Edwards is believable, we get a brief hinterland Edwards projects clearly with the right primness: her boss Harvey Baines though – played by co-director Nick Bartlett – isn’t. It’s where Aitkens’ period/updated script still creaks with caricatures of sexism that Baines’ topical rapacity can’t mask. Such a burlesqued sketch of petty villainy renders Edwards’s devotion – however well Ikdashi exasperates – masochistic. Bartlett undertaking a near-impossible task does his brisk best.
This can be a believable co-dependency, Edwards’ well-meaning mainstay of a profit-sucking machine; but again, this is comedy. A squiggle of redemption’s needed for Baines’ conclusion; Aitken’s not supplied it. But he has provided wild last minutes. Step in Ikdashi’s Edwards to um, smother Baines.
Mann and Ariss lead a fine company into a dash to eternity and back. It’s high summer, they whoop a memorable finale of two weddings and a funeral. That coffin – another Chapman prop – has you guessing and it’s a cliff-hanger the company and Aitken load with detail, farce and believable brio. I only wish Aitken had given this superb company more to bite off earlier. As it is, enjoy one of the great Brighton companies letting their wigs down.