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FringeReview UK 2018

Katie Johnstone

Orange Tree Theatre in Association with St Mary’s University, Twickenham, Arts Council England

Genre: Contemporary, Dark Comedy, Drama, Live Music, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond


Low Down

MA graduates from St Mary’s work in the Orange Tree space. In the second year of Orange Tree’s Directors’ Festival, in this production Samson Hawkins directs, and designer Eleanor Bull fresh from the Linbury Award creates the set lit by Stuart Burgess, with sound by Anna Clock, featuring Sophia Simensky’s costumes and in this production Philip d’Orleans as fight director.


It’s back. After last year’s huge success The Orange Tree Theatre in Association with St Mary’s University, Twickenham proves yet again how welcoming it’s being to young audiences, new writing (like Joe White’s debut Mayfly)and – as here – directorial talent .


In the second year of this eight-days’ Directors’ Festival, three plays (one new) are featured with three new directors and the same design and lighting team – designer Eleanor Bull fresh from the Linbury Award too. MA graduates from St Mary’s get a superb opportunity to work in the wonderful Orange Tree space and in this production Samson Hawkins turns the premiere of a dramatist known for crafting semi-musicals into a bopping hymn to crushed aspiration. But he keeps it somehow dancing; it’s tight, choreographed and never drops in energy for a beat.


Luke Barnes’ Katie Johnstone has the DNA of his two 2017 plays in it. Sometimes you feel that like Scott Fitzgerald, Barnes’ style is hope, his message is despair. Where Katie Johnstone shares familial material with them it seems quite deliberate. The new play’s studded with the high-energy jinks and sudden stand-alone songs reminiscent of the musical elements of All We Ever Wanted Was Everything. That’s a quasi-musical where two young people grow up on opposite sides of the tracks and collide twice (with an asteroid too!).


Even more, Barnes’ masterly No-One Will Tell Me How To Start a Revolution features three aspirational sisters, whose surname is – Johnstone. Their attempts to fit into the new school their father’s struggled to move them to is poignant, gobby, blistering, tragic; by the end you want to start a revolution for them. It’s also the most original take on Chekhov’s Three Sisters I’ve encountered.


Barnes’ recurring themes involve young people, often mid-to-late teen girls, whose natural intelligence has been almost deliberately starved of oxygen by those that keep them out of ‘the right kind’ of schools, jobs, life.


Some of that furious, wholly justified class fury filters in here where the eponymous heroine (can’t we say hero?) trashes a snobby middle-class woman scoring coke off her and discovering it’s weed. This picks up a feed from Revolution too, as does the (effectively) one-parent family; and Barnes here with a kind of fourth sister creates a similarly downward-curving story for a zesty, aspirational under-educated bright young woman who shuns university or college for getting rich quick but somehow staying put.


Eleanor Bull’s squares of upended plastic green boxes interlocked with flower beds, Astroturf and various props, even a shopping basket, and lighting from Stuart Burgess features a surprise: the audience is handed pencil lights and quickly flicks them on when a number’s up. Barnes’ gift for inbuilt participation is at its happiest here and Bull’s taken it a step further. Oh, and we’re warned there’s extreme gardening. Everything’s ripped up in those beds, and much rains down: it’s an exuberantly sad spectacle. Anna Clock’s sound is key to this switch from narrative to poems chanted when lights dim to those pencil-winks in darkness.


There’s two multi-roling actors, Kristin Atherton playing put-upon stressed mum, sex-obsessed best mate, and that middle-class person; and Reuben Johnson as various blokes, the nice park attendant Mr Hughes who offers job and counselling and… a slinky fox. They constellate around Georgia May Hughes in the title role who’s never off for the whole seventy-five minutes this paly runs to.


Hughes’ energy is infectious. Her shouty way with performance poetry delivery (it’s not that bad by slam standards), contrasts with high-volume enthusings for every scheme she can devise. She rejects men as simply not interesting. Her mum works in Tesco with Katie’s best friend, and hopes wistfully they can all work there together. As if. Katie works in night school but not consistently enough. So she spends her grandmother’s inheritance on.. a hundred Sky remotes from China. She thinks there must be a gap in the market though she hates Sky.


So does everyone else. Johnson’s laconic hi-fi man disabuses her; he can’t shift the ones he has, no-one wants them. She eventually presents a flip-chart projector presentation (quite slick with its childlike superimpositions) of buying a plot of land and selling nuts to people to feed squirrels. Mr Hughes for whom she works in the park is kindness itself trying to let her down. Cue some flower-beds and Katie. Hughes herself in her Katie T-shirt conveys Katie’s volatile quick-fire swerves, her subjective dreams meeting cold starlight. Indeed the ‘burned out.. dead’ stars become a leitmotif here (as in other plays) where Katie’s realisation of her value chills


Katie’s easily lost and in one sense Barnes wants you to laugh at her antics, as well as with her in everything she says. Katie’s in one sense far less sassy and more frantic than Barnes’ previous characters. Even if you wonder if someone could really believe in such schemes, the ill-informed desperation, clutching at anything to launch out of poverty is achingly real.


Atherton in particular switches from loving anxious mum – who packs a poetic surprise herself – and boy-obsessed best mate, as well as the chilling middle-class apparition that haunts Barnes’ work. Johnson modulates from skanky bloke through sourly patient shop-owner (failing, the last independent left) through Mr Hughes’ paternal regard to a fox who can pop up next to an audience member anywhere. Indeed that fox brings the only still interaction Katie understands.


Most of all you take away the sheer bravura of Hughes’ throwing everything up in the air, exploding in a shivering strips of colour, or spectrally outlined in pencil lights. Hawkins accelerates to sudden blackout. He suggests Barnes is telling us to seek closure for this play, by redressing the austerity connived at by those who want a new serfdom. The cast, particularly Hughes carry the energy to a cheery bleakness. And you want to cheer.