FringeReview UK 2017
Chichester Festival’s production of Alistair Beaton‘s 2016 Fracked! arrives at Theatre Royal, Brighton with a superb new cast directed by Richard Wilson and very slightly updated now tours. It features James Bolam, Anne Reid, Harry Hadden-Paton and Michael Simkins. James Cotterill’s design brings opening and closing with front-of-curtain business features a revolve and Johanna Town’s crisp lighting differentiates it. Ian Dickinson’s sound and Tim Reid’s videos round a consummate brightness to the production. Till May 6th.
Don’t Use the F-Word gets every F you can imagine as Chichester Festival’s production of Alistair Beaton‘s 2016 Fracked! directed by Richard Wilson and very slightly updated now tours. It’s arrived at Theatre Royal, Brighton with a superb new cast featuring James Bolam, Anne Reid, Harry Hadden-Paton and Michael Simkins. James Cotterill’s design brings a little Chichester luxury. Opening and closing with front-of-curtain business features a revolve and Johanna Town’s crisp lighting differentiates it: a glistering PR office and village kitchen where the Aga and the ecstasy of a retired couple works itself out. One scene’s a plush restaurant with a killer line attached. Ian Dickinson’s sound romps through faulty mikes and fault-fingering protesters. Tim Reid’s videos show slick PR and newsreel chaos to round a consummate brightness.
We’re first treated to a neat example of actor placement and a mayorial meeting gone awry. You’ll have to see it. Then a PR film on fracking, flawed so we’re given info obliquely argued over as ironically-entitled Deerland Energy CEO Hal (Simkins) agonizes over presentation. It’s slick, painless and leaves you raging. The play will inform you, but though I felt briefed before, I didn’t realize radioactive water pumps up from fracking, often with nowhere to go, polluting us with disastrous consequences.
Cue revolve. Jack (Bolam) and Professor Emeritus Elizabeth (Reid) are a retired couple suffering invasion – fracking and the foot-soldiers fighting it including her friend Jenny (Andrea Hart, also Lady Mayor) and twenty-three-year-old lover Sam (Freddie Meredith). Reid’s not partial to active protest and the play’s aimed at those who disapprove strongly at non-democratic means of preserving democracy. Reid’s journey is as you’d expect from the deft, left-wing Beaton, from believing voting changes things to something rather different. It’s a serious message but not heavy comedy.
Beaton’s touching-in of the broad strokes you’d associate with his time at (for instance) Spitting Image surfaces in his portrayal of PR guru Joe, Hadden-Paton’s Posh image perfectly suited to this feral opportunist straight out of The Thick Of It and whose PR form ruthlessly pushes Deerland by old-world oil-alas-is-the-only-way Hal beyond its and ultimately everyone else’s comfort zone and then does something extraordinary to them.
The clash between Reid and Hadden-Paton’s the core of this continually-twisting plotline, where Joe ensures Elizabeth is sued, she nobbles the dodgy wobbly counsellor Neville (Tristram Wymark, sharp self-interest sharply-etched) through his sister. Joe nobbles Neville in turn over a particularly nasty lunch where Joe ultimately bribes the waiter (Steven Roberts, a beautiful turn) to piss in Neville’s coffee. Since mutual antipathy flares, there’s only two scenes between Reid and Hadden-Paton where the latter somehow gets the wrong end of a bull. For once you feel he’s justified in his continual use of the F-word. Reid’s scorn, sensing Joe’s weak spot, almost brings cheers on. His is a magnificent, unrepentant performance of sheer nastiness. Even his PA Malik, Waleed Akhtar who makes a journey of his own, isn’t given the great trump lines to defeat him. And Joe does extol The Art of the Deal.
The nuances are elsewhere. Bolam’s baffled loyalties, fiercely protective but in the wrong places or at the wrong time. For instance campaigners Jenny and Sam to whom he takes a dislike – wouldn’t you get exasperated by Sam’s patronising tones? Nevertheless there’s a touching rapprochement between the two men when Sam shows Jack how to research quickly and indeed neutralise that summons. Meredith’s dopiness is ultimately appealing and he knows how to exude, after all the right degree of warmth. Beaton gifts Jack all the lines where confusion and a beat behind the action render him endearingly obsolete to all but Elizabeth. For instance still repeating the obsolete code to unlock a shed. But he can catch up. And his final line ‘it’s going vital’ brings the house down. You’ll have to see why. Bolam’s gentle sending himself up, his precise beat behind the action, is consummate.
Hart’s hard-assed campaigner, nervous her far younger lover will create adverse publicity, is acutely realised: edgy, brittly humane, cajoling, and here not too fanatical. It’s her arguments and most of all Reid’s experience of blackmail that pushes the latter to the point of revolution. Reid comprises dignity and resolute panache in equal measure, and it’s her adamantine certainty you spend as a moral compass when all around relative self-serving or sheer bafflement reigns.
This is a finely-balanced play, not on the issues, which Beaton takes as open-and-closed as indeed for many it is. But in shading for instance the hapless Hal as a decent oil specialist without malice but also without imagination, he humanizes the opposition. Indeed apart from the other companies waiting in the wings the Deerland people aren’t villains at all, but imprisoned by their mind-set. Villainy’s reserved for PR Joe’s covered for everyone paedophiles, crooks and even Tony Blair. Though even he failed with Blair. Beaton allows Jack most of the scorn easily poured on protesters, even Elizabeth can’t resist the odd crack at professionally angry people whom Joe scorns. That’s why Elizabeth, far more articulate, is a danger. Richard Wilson knows the value of understatement, and in a snatch of pauses and quizzical looks from Reid and Bolam he further leavens Beaton’s human inventory with an eyebrow of his own.
The denouement involves Nathaniel Parker’s pliable Lord Avons on television monitor. The amount of fracking information stimulates rather than overbears in Beaton’s politically adroit, party-crossing issue play. It’s far more than enlightening too; it’s a play that lightens our being, sharpening our tools for thinking and falling about with blunt laughter.