FringeReview UK 2018
When we hear the word ‘Homelessness’, the image that most readily springs to mind is of people sleeping rough in shop doorways, or sitting on the pavement with an outstretched hand – and a dog.
But it’s the ‘home’ part of homelessness that Richard Fitchett’s written about in ‘Starfish’. What does a home mean to someone? What’s it like to lose yours? How far would someone go to recover what’s been lost?
Cheryl and Tim are both teachers, so their days are very stressful and when they get home in the evening they just want to sink into the sofa with a glass or two of wine. But as the play opens they’ve just come in, and they realise that they’re not alone in the house …
There’s an intruder – but an intruder who’s done the washing-up and cooked them dinner! Tim’s threatening violence, followed by a call to the police, but then the man introduces himself – “I’m Eric”. This changes the whole relationship; suddenly the newcomer isn’t just an object, a category – he’s a person, an individual, and Tim and Cheryl will have to deal with him as another human being.
An unknown person arrives in a house. Sounds like something by Pinter; but it made me think of Max Frisch’s play ‘Arsonists’, where the same thing happens. Two roughly-clad anarchists arrive at the house of a bourgeois businessman, and he’s about to throw them out when – they introduce themselves. “My name is Schmitz” From that moment on Herr Biedermann has to treat them as fellow men. Colleagues, even.
‘Starfish’ is very subtly written, with a great understanding of human nature. We’ve all seen rough sleepers in the street, and as good liberals we ‘sympathise’ with their predicament , we fret about ‘the economic system’ that’s failed them and sometimes we give them money (“even though they’ll just spend it on drink”). If we’re more thoughtful we might donate to a homeless charity. What the vast majority of us wouldn’t do is to get involved personally.
But now Cheryl and Tim have to deal with Eric. Eric the human being, who hasn’t got a home and wants to live in theirs. Who offers to do all the cooking and cleaning in exchange for a roof over his head. Close up, eyeball to eyeball with a fellow human being, they find it impossible to refuse him, and so Eric is allowed to stay.
But of course every individual creates a disturbance around themselves. Eric cooks – but not the food that the couple actually want to eat. Eric cleans – but while he’s dusting he hums constantly and sings little snatches of Abba (which Tim detests). He subtly alters their furnishings to things he feels are “more in keeping with the house”. Cheryl and Tim find all this very unsettling. It’s a clever inversion – they have given Eric a home but in the process it feels like they are losing their own. The writing has a great understanding of human psychology, as I’ve mentioned, but it’s done with humour too, and there are any number of very funny and witty lines. .
‘Starfish’ is a four-hander – we also meet Karin, a friend of Cheryl and Tim’s who works with the homeless – but it’s essentially about the changing dynamic between the couple and Eric. They are teachers, remember – Cheryl tries to get Eric to open up about his earlier life; she wants to understand how he came to his present condition. Tim wants to improve Eric’s life; he works out at the gym and thinks Eric should do the same. It occurred to me that Tim is focused on the future, building up his body to be healthier, while Eric is focused on the past, altering his surroundings to better reflect his memories of his childhood.
Apart from a short scene in a bar, all the action takes place in Tim and Cheryl’s living room. It helps that the Marlborough stage is fairly small, so Chance Bliss Dini’s confident direction allowed the actors to move around very naturally. Just a sofa and a low table, with three flats making a wall at the rear, which the actors could pass round to go to the house’s kitchen or the front door. Richard Fitchett has created what’s in effect a laboratory – an isolated space where we can observe events and interactions without any outside interference.
‘Starfish’ is very much an ensemble piece. Eden Avital Alexander as Karin may not have as many lines as the others, but when she’s on she dominates the stage – a social worker with no conception of personal space. Watching her commandeer Tim’s wine glass, without any pause in her flow of words, was a joy. Sara Templeman produced a convincingly nuanced portrait of a middle-class teacher – resenting Eric’s encroachment on her domestic environment but still determined to try to understand the man and to help him.
Warren Saunders kept making me think of buildings. He plays Tim as a classic Englishman ‘whose home is his castle’. At the start he’s prepared to use violence to defend it, and he’s constantly trying to find ways to reclaim it. Even his bodybuilding (I’ll never look at blue hand weights in the same way again) is practiced because – “My body is a temple”.
But it’s Jack Kristianson as Eric who’s really quite special in this production. Occasionally his delivery of lines was too fast, making him difficult to follow, but his body language more than made up for that. Cringing with fear at the opening, then quietly, apologetically but with steely resolve, working his transformation on Tim and Cheryl’s lives, he gave a very believable portrait of a damaged, but driven, individual.
Covert Accomplice are gaining a reputation for putting on productions that engage with contemporary social issues. ‘Half Baked’ dealt with the failures of higher education, and now they’ve tackled homelessness. We need this kind of theatre – theatre that doesn’t hammer us over the head with the obvious, but which uses humour to seduce us, drawing us in with an oblique view of the situation – a different perspective that deepens our understanding.