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Brighton Year-Round 2023

Low Down

This is a first-rate ensemble and Parry has mastered a superlatively-layered interaction. Forget reading, this is a brace of vibrant performances. It helps Burgess is a consummate theatre-writer.

Written by Mark Burgess. Directed by Derek Parry

Technical, Lighting & Sound Operator Erin Burbridge.

Till October 28th


Though originally Radio 4 plays, they burst out of those confines. Though rehearsed readings, they’re the most theatrically consummate readings I’ve seen, far better than many performances.

Welcome to Mark Burgess Retrospective at the Lantern Theatre. Two plays set in 1976 with flashbacks: Sam O’Bedlam and Joan & the Baron, two plays of six and five parts, directed by Derek Parry; with Erin Burbridge effecting lighting and sound operation we’re left in the presence of seven mostly multi-roling actors, and the endgame as it were of two great theatrical revolutionaries: Samuel Beckett and Joan Littlewood. And the prime company they keep is no less fascinating.


Sam O’Bedlam

Becket (Mark Burgess) meets up with his childhood and lifelong friend Geoffrey Thompson Daniel Finlay) a psychiatrist as they wittily rediscover their capacity, between them, of finding a good restaurant and the right food: a talent Beckett lacks. And at the opening and close, of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.

Burgess and Finlay portray to slightly Anglicised Irishmen (Finlay suggests Thompson’s almost completely Anglicised by 1976, and Burgess sports a slight burr) casting back to 1935, when an incident occurred that nearly disrupted their friendship yet gave rise, finally to Godot. Burgess as writer wittily suggests a solution to the conundrum of Godot: its genesis, its protagonist and the only man who’ll ever know what it was about. After all it seemed to nearly cost him his career.

Their younger incarnations Charlie Hesketh (Younger Beckett) and Yonger Thompson (Michael Knighton) throw themselves into a cricketing match at Bethlem hospital with enormous aplomb and far broader accents. There’s a vitality here deliberately contrasting with the scintillating half-lights set up by Finlay and Burgess. It’s a terrific double at too.

They’re joined by Ursula (Ela Chapman) fiancée who as Beckett alter admits terrifies him. He has reason Ursula in Chapman’s hands is a school ma’am who knows exactly what Beckett, never getting up before noon, is capable of risking her fiance´’s career by pursuing an interview with a psychiatric patient Michael (Michael Bucke) strictly verboten by medical protocol. Geoffrey finally gives way to Sam, they’ll go together. But Geoffrey’s even better than normal at the crease, and as a demon bowler. Sam gets restless.

There’s consequences. Chapman is excellent here in her ferocious protection, offstage characters are invoked with a certain awe, and Bucke’s performance as the frozen Michael, deposited by his despairing mother after his too-great attachment, convinced she’ll return is harrowing in its dead stare take on th world, no aps no future.

It’s not just the casual one-liners we know, like “Where nothing happens. Twice” about Godot (Vivian Mercier in the Irish Times, 1956) but Burgess ahs crafted more. And of course do the older friends move at the end?

This is ingenious, cleverly but never heavily-allusive and above all a surprise. Despite any end of temptation to portray Beckett with a whiff of his dramatic persona, Burgess digs into his knowledge of how Beckett was with friends. It’s a warm-hearted play about friendship surviving literary ambition and with Godot, “some apology… and thank you” of monumental proportions.


Joan & the Baron

Some cast return for a very different theatrical titan. Joan Littlewood (Jane Arden) gave up Theatre Workshop in 1975, when her beloved younger partner Geoffrey Raffles died. She’s identified in a small bistro by Baron Philippe de Rothschild (Julien Ball) who – motor-racing driver, winegrower, Free French fighter, twice widower and playwright like his father and producer – instantly knows genius when she sees it. He introduces himself. “Name-dropper” suggests Littlewood. It takes time, but Joan accepts Philip’s invitation to dine, lightly, and then visit. Philippe quickly has ulterior motives for the best of reasons. Joan has no business retiring.

But then a deep love blossoms between them. Burgess shuttles deftly between brief exposition and conjuring the past, and sidestepping into the vinyard’s present.

Arden is mesmerising as the capped Joan and Ball does a supremely elegant turn to pirouette verbally round the downright lyrical pronouncements of one of his idols. Arden embodies the older Joan and it’s on reason this play should be seen as well as heard.

Like the Beckett, its twin, we’re segued back to Joan’s earlier life and again through her visited populated by workers on the estate. Arden licks her troupe before us and most of the cast perform Joan’s past rather than the estates present.

Bucke makes a fine job of servant Marcel, or Murray Melvin in the brief Taste of Honey scene, of Colin and the growling Bolingbroke George – both actors of the troupe. Hesketh is briefly Harry H Corbett as Richard II, the snobby RADA principal who set Jon off to run away and become Joan of the Hedgerows (she’s now Joan of the Vinyards and not Joan of the Stockyards, a Brechtian echo submerged); and Victor Spinetti, who went like so many to fortune elsewhere. Hesketh like Bucke deploys a gallimaufry of accents.

Chapman as you’d expect by now is excellent as bolshie, laconic, still callow Shelagh Delaney as well as the actor who played Helen; but earlier on, Ava Bunnage – and with Hesketh two grape-pickers who get Joan to join in. Offstage characters like Frances Cuka (the first Jo in Honey) are conjured.

But we also learn much of th Baton’s life. THe death of his firt estranged wife in Ravensbruck, the only Rothschild to die in the holocaust. His second wife has just died. His daughter’s an actress and will carry on remodelling the estate that the Baron came back to , virtually destroyed by the Nazis. The information’s available online. Burgess’ truth I to anchor what we know about this friendship into a coherent narrative that never over-freights exposition.

What of the memoir Philippe asked of Joan (as at least some account of her creative life, to which she’s reluctant to return)? What’s left for him, is certainly a surprise.


This is a first-rate ensemble and Parry has mastered a superlatively-layered interaction. Forget reading, this is a brace of vibrant performances.

It helps Burgess is a consummate theatre-writer and this double-bill could easily be seen in say the Jermyn Street summer season. It has a day to run. It’s the most exciting discovery at the Lantern since… well the Orton Season, also curated by Mark Burgess over two months ago. The quality of the performances themselves though are on the whole much stronger.

On Saturday there’s two performances of Burgess’ Soldier/Sailor, around Alec Guinness.