FringeReview UK 2016
Tom Basden’s 2013 play featured at the Edinburgh Fringe, a four-hander black hole of a comedy. Presented in the NVT Studio, it’s directed by Nicholas Richards with set designed by Charly Sommers and built by Andrew Paul Smith and Simon Glazier. Shorthand naturalism sassily foregrounds sand, strewn luggage, a jungle fringe and part of a crashed airliner.
Nicholas Richards directs this 2013 play by Tom Basden, a four-hander black hole of a comedy in the NVT Studio, with set designed by Charly Sommers and built by Andrew Paul Smith and Simon Glazier. Shorthand naturalism sassily foregrounds sand, strewn luggage, a jungle fringe and part of a crashed airliner.
One young woman lies prone, another girl of sixteen sits aphasically incapable of speech and a dirt-smeared man nurses a broken arm. When jolly hollering breaks the silence we’re complete. These four are the sole survivors of an aircrash, and perhaps beyond.
Robert Purchese’s Alpha Male Ian is the hollerer. Purchese has lately cornered the unhinged wannabe and here he beautifully unfastens, at first overbearing and bumptious, and later, something other. Scott Roberts’ Gus slides the other way, from competent if damaged rationalist to alcoholic mourner for his lost family: the quartet believe after a confused radio conversation they might just be the only humans left.
Despite having to bury the dead – two of whom as the traumatised girl, Erin finally speaks could be buried separately, being her parents – this promises to be a party. The other three are all en route to a Sydney conference for their diaspora-crunching company; Marie’s had the hots for Ian for some time. Kate McGann’s neatly self-obsessed Marie moves from sunbathing to slithering up and down near Ian with a large banana to attract his ministration. Ian however is disturbingly drawn to the unimpressed Erin. As months wear on Marie thinks of having a child.
McGann conveys Marie’s three breathy strands with their wisps of narcissism: hedonistic heedless do-nothing sunbather, office HR bully treating Erin as the bottom of the food chain sourcing the wrong kind of food; and her almost comic coming-on to Ian. The last’s her most appealing suit: indeed on the face of it there’s no reason why Ian shouldn’t respond to her attractions, even before she’s the sexist woman left on the planet.
Why Ian thinks Erin at sixteen would make ideal breeding stock is a pitch-dark guess, but we’ve crashed the office on the beach and scene-changes show how gradually the accoutrements of civilisation are harvested discarded and buried.
Elsa Noad’s traumatised Erin discovers a sturdily sane voice, an even more measured counterpart to Gus, who’s lost to her as an ally through his descent into alcoholic singing. When Coldplay’s last song cuts out, it’s Gus’s voice amplified by real tracks in the sound design of Jezz Bowden that plays the soundtrack of what’s been lost, existing only in the survivors’ heads. Roberts charts this descent with consummate lurches out of clarity, into the most literal and bleakest of holes.
Erin’s fruit-gathering doesn’t impress Marie, only the berries, which Gus warns might be dangerous. Marie though wants to impress Ian. In all the horror there’s laughter. ‘Berries not a good idea’. Ian’s team-leader quips remain intact whatever.
Both Gus and Erin can quote Pythagoras as Ian moves to a bizarre new phase of reclaiming all the knowledge of the world they can pool together from bible to scraps of science. Purchese too unhinges just a notch from bumptious Alpha to psychotic cut-price visionary whose reclamation of human knowledge filters through fatuous Jingoism. His contribution is what his grandfather taught him: Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ with its racist assumption of an English ‘richer dust’ in a ‘foreign field… forever England’.
The bleak dynamic triangulates as Ian tightens his grip on the others whilst losing it on himself. The denouements jump-cut and must be seen.
Some of this is predictable (Lord of the Flies naturally), some not. Basden’s comic writing remains undented by all the literal and metaphoric holes that Gus claims Ian digs – not least those Basden might dig for himself. Holes sashays between naturalism and fable; even Basden can’t quite predict what a year will bring to the balance of his premise though his dramatic instincts don’t desert him.
Whilst Noad and McGann strongly characterise their performances, indeed wholly convince, Basden has rather slanted development towards his male protagonists. Roberts and Purchese seize the slithery psychosis of male identity wrenched and debased, and make something special and unforgettable out of the comically horrifying – indeed their performances seem definitive. Richards has produced a sovereign reading of a troubled, brilliantly unequal question mark.