FringeReview UK 2018
The first Orange Tree debut play – Joe White’s Mayfly – is funded in a new venture by Arts Council England and directed with all the right nudges by Guy Jones. Cécile Trémolieres’ set, a sunken square ex-bear garden of that expiring pub, later becomes the top of a hill and family home edged as the set is with dangling foliage. We read the opening coup through flashes of Christopher Nairne’s lighting. Megan Rarity’s costumes add a stitch to gentle laughter and Jennifer Jackson’s movement makes a huge chasm in a modest space. Tim Charrington’s dialect coaching burrs everything here to the losing side.
The Orange Tree’s now one of the go-to theatres for nurturing new playwrights though Joe White‘s Mayfly is the first debut play they’ve mounted, directed with all the right nudges by Guy Jones. White’s come through the Royal Court and Orange Tree programmes and nails this double debut with a heart-stoppingly poignant play circling around bereavement. So of course it’s often screamingly funny, set in a Shropshire village grieving for its own extinction as the last pub closes and all life hums down to a low fridge-light in your local Spar.
Tim Charrington’s dialect coaching burrs everything here to the losing side as DINKYS and London nest-eggers house-snatch the area and the village dies as the last young leave.
The title though is the one thing that’s almost ditched, despite a brief monologue. The sounds of the mayfly’s day-long cycle are muted in Jon Ouin’s score and sound design, the play’s tripartite lifecycle can’t be replicated onstage but dramatically the classical twenty-four hours more than make the same point. And there’s a poignant reveal attached to the title if obliquely.
We open with a theatrical coup. Cécile Trémolieres’ set, a sunken square ex-bear garden of that expiring pub, later becomes the top of a hill and even later a family home edged as the set is with dangling foliage. But all that’s after a blackout with water sheeting down over a man. We read through flashes of Christopher Nairne’s lighting another man’s dragging him out of the blackness with – after a struggle – two soaking figures at the edge. Irfan Shamji’s Harry has just saved the life of the older Simon Scardfield’s life from a river, despite being deliberately punched in the groin for his pains. Though Harry took off his shoes and socks first. ‘Sixty quid.’ It’s a tingling opening, the first of Jennifer Jackson’s movement making a huge chasm in a modest space. Harry reveals his name; Ben doesn’t reciprocate.
As if nothing’s happened Ben finds his daughter Loops trying on her mother’s dress, the first time she’s come out of camouflage for a year, a cadet who loves the army. They’re both trying to change into completely mismatched clothing and Loops doesn’t even want to look away till he father banishes her. It’s fantastically edgy. Megan Rarity’s costumes add a stitch to gentle laughter.
Evelyn Hoskins’ appealingly insecure Loops is hoping to track down the boy who guessed where her nipples were ten years ago in camp when she was fifteen. She does, he works at the expired pub making a final clear-out of the bear garden. Loops blazons a prepared speech on her arm, and persuades him. ‘The hardest thing was saying it to you in your shorts without laughing.’ They’ll hook up to hike off to the highest spot for miles, where the next high-spot east is the Urals.
The older Cat (Niky Wardley) arrives there, the place where everything happened to her at seventeen nearly thirty years ago. She’s continually leaving messages for a ‘babe’ she fears has deserted her, recalling how he was shagging one of the barmaids and make-believes the place is buzzing in a farewell bash that’s already taken place with just six sad revellers. She makes a lunge for the same young man. ‘You can fuck me if you want… no big thing, in the toilets, or whatever, find a bush –‘ The reason he’s wearing shorts is because his proper trousers are soaking. This is Harry. He keeps faith with Ben and hasn’t revealed to Loops why he’s in shorts. Though there’s revelations to follow. Later Cat will ask Harry to say he’s Adam via a mobile phone.
That’s after Loops and Harry’s magic mushroom date goes somewhat wonky after a sweet start, and we’ve been edged with danger and mortality. Though Loops is twenty-five and Harry twenty-seven, neither seem to have had a lover before. But Loops is offering Harry the chance to meet her parents, eat a takeaway curry and stay the night.
The fallout needs to be seen. Each character offsets a desperate grief and these collide. Scardfield’s is the opening, most overt expression, which has to modify itself. But Wardley, Hoskins and finally Shmaji each unexpectedly unpeel a sequence that shows how fragile each grief is and how it bruises others’ grieving. White though has prepared at least antidote. whether it’s enough is worth coming to the Orange Tree to find out. The cast is uniformly excellent: Hoskins and Shamji take the weight of a journey with their moving, vulnerable unpeeling to what Rilke calls being exposed on the mountains of the heart. Or even, as here, just very high ground.
Mayfly’s a play conscious of its deft artistry, and some of the overt symbolism’s been ditched as not everything dies after a day. Equally though it’s a work that despite its buzzing coincidences never loses the pulse of its profound ache. That’s why it’s so heartbreakingly funny, tender, even affirmative. A superb debut, the first it’s to be hoped of many others here. The Arts Council should be proud of this venture and support a series. White’s one to watch, and so is the magnificent Orange Tree, invariably staging a mighty reckoning in a little room.