FringeReview UK 2018
Steven Adams as usual has provided a versatile white-painted set with chairs, lighting and sound design, starkly realised by Tom Williams. The stark white’s thus played on by vigorous use of colour in Claire Ghiaci’s lighting and sound operation. In Anna Jordan’s Stay Happy Keep Smiling, Mandy-Jane Jackson abetted by Sarah Leedham directs a tight, professional-standard company who provide their own co-ordinated costumes. Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s Fury is directed by Ellie Mason with Frankie Knight assisting, Roger Mason’s music and Rachel Flower’s costumes. Till September 29th.
BLT’s plunging into wonderfully high-risk territory in this autumnal double bill, reprising their similar gambit last September. After Terry Johnson’s adaptation of Charles Webb’s The Graduate, with nudity and more graphic scenes than the film, a bare week later sees a three-day run of similarly edgy work. Only this time with two new plays scarcely known.
Steven Adams as usual has provided a versatile white-painted set with chairs, lighting and sound design, starkly realised by Tom Williams. The stark white’s thus played on by vigorous use of colour in Claire Ghiaci’s lighting and sound operation
Anna Jordan Stay Happy Keep Smiling
Anna Jordan’s famous for having won the Bruntwood Prize – easily the Booker of Theatre – with Yen which premiered at the Royal Exchange Manchester and transferred to the Royal Court. Jordan’s attracted to grim drama with glints of humour, and cites John Sullivan of Only Fools and Horses as her surprisingly greatest influence.
Stay Happy Keep Smiling charts the lives of six witnesses to the killing of Bombardier Lee Rigby in May 2013. It’s not stated but Jordan sticks precisely to the known facts then invents the outfall. Mandy-Jane Jackson abetted by Sarah Leedham directs a tight, professional-standard company who can have had very little rehearsal time in this space, owing to the previous production. The company also provided their own costumes though these are strikingly co-ordinated. Each wears a bright cadmium red item: hijab, tie, cap, it’s always a strip of colour.
Rita can’t hug her children or husband, and is terrified for them. Teacher Tony’s signed off teaching English does jigsaws, can’t sleep and listens to his wife’s snores. Eliot has to face hid sexuality publicly, he feels. Farrah’s memories of 2003 flood back. Annie, frozen after the death of her unborn baby in a crash, starts to feel again. Stefan feels nothing but the desire to work, drink and have sex, like Camus’ Outsider.
The cast play seventeen roles in all, and their own specific one, from the moment they speak each sitting on a chair, rather like one of Peter Gill’s sparer plays but familiar enough now. There’s bleak humour in the students’ mobbing Joseph Bentley’s Tony, the articulate weary and suddenly paralysed tutor losing control as he tries to exhort his class to read Joyce’s last Dubliners story ‘The Dead’. Bentley traces Tony’s sensitively wrought journey till he finally flips and leaves his home for the death site with dying flowers, and meets Charlotte Anne Atkinson’s mouthy barmaid Annie. Who’s doing the same. an instant bond and understanding erupts.
Annie’s beginning to feel again paradoxically after the death of her foetus in a car crash that essentially robbed her of Dom the baby’s father too, as though he survived minus his little finger she can’t forgive him the crash that wasn’t his fault. Finally reaching out with a 5am phone call, she finds there’s a baby on the other end, and Neil Drew’s Dom anxious to end the call. There’s no way back for her.
Atkinson’s particularly fine at exuding withdrawn rage, and more volatile rage as Lena the insecure prentice journalist whose backdoor route into journalism isn’t helped by having Stefan as a subject. Since all Neil Drew’s character wants is her; it’s a bludgeon of a vignette. There’s an existential truth to it, but naturally it revolts Lena with her class assumptions and Stefan’s boorish bluntness.
Laura Scobie’s Farrah builds and builds. For her the trauma released previous trauma, a terrible event in 2003. Scobie builds slowly with the refrain ‘till then I remembered nothing’ and each time unveiling a little more of something more traumatic than even the 2013 atrocity.
Alfie Moffatt recently the religious crow in animal Farm, proves as Eliot the man who won’t come out to his mother (Barbara Halsey) that he has more to lose than imagined homophobia when his lover Johnny (Bentley again) presses for public acknowledgment. There’s a painful scene in hospital where Eliot’s being treated for shock, where his mother thinks Johnny a work colleague. Eliot must choose. Something simple makes him do so. Moffatt’s watchful self-consciousness as a man not publicly occupying his own skin is wry and tender. And his enacting a child for Rita, the last and largest role, is winsome and wincingly good.
Halsey’s Rita is the monumental role, sparring with her children or most particularly Scobie’s warmly non-judgemental counsellor. Halsey’s particularly good at registering the excavations Rita makes from the topsoil of chilli sauces and sore bums through far more elemental fears. Her carefully restrained explosion is climactic and incredibly moving.
Fro survivors, there are mis-readings, missed opportunities with second chances, realizations that mightn’t help anyone in the short term, and consummations of fellow-feeling. Jordan’s play expertly moves between the different affectivity of trauma, or PTSD, and interrogates what its really like to be human beyond it. Victimhood as such isn’t an option. Each character has to confront moving beyond a requiem for the living. Jackson and her cast have unearthed an urgent topical play, still unaccountably unpublished despite Jordan’s recent celebrity. Her waiver for performing fees is generous and allows the air to get at this powerful wound of witness and aftermath.
Phoebe Eclair-Powell Fury
Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s a name new to me, and her 2017 play Fury set in post-Brexit-voting Britain and seven years of austerity impels the kind of catharsis seen in Greek tragedy – which when you have a chorus of three seems something the playwright intended too. The structure like most Greek tragedy winds up closing off the exits. Fury does this with a slamming of front doors.
Directed by Ellie Mason with Frankie Knight assisting, Roger Mason’s music and Rachel Flower’s costumes, this is another recent play it’s a thrill to have seen enacted so quickly by an avowedly amateur theatre with professional standards. Premiering at Soho Theatre in 2016 it made a a terrific impact as a kind of modern Medea though without the matricidal tendencies. There are issues towards the end that haven’t been addressed since the premiere, partly because Nick Hern books brought out an edition, setting it in aspic. It’s still extremely potent, and in a performance such as Keziah Israel’s in the central role of Sam, these caveats crumble away under a primed scream.
Sam’s a single mum living in Peckham split from her sons’ father Rob who’s with a smart new partner expecting a child. One avenue closing since even childcare’s ending. Sam’s genuine grievance at a high-handed cleaning customer morphs into her eventual sacking from the cleaning agency. This is paradoxically triggered by an initially positive experience. Tom (Tom Cunningham) living above her has a master’s but can’t feel at home in London. They go out and party a bit, ending up at a weir. Tom’s gawky yet deeply attracted to Sam, and tries kissing. Sam gives in for a bit but then something snaps. She’s been sexualised for so long she can hardly forge an identity separate from that or from being a stressed mother. Emerging from his flat she finds herself sacked. Both the snobby woman and her already-stressed employer at roles well taken by Caroline Lambe.
Tom offers her cleaning, and for an extra fringe benefits, an arrangement. You hear about this with landlords and young women. Awkward Tom is in fact a creep, and threatens to report Sam to the authorities if she doesn’t comply. His behaviour – Cunningham’s horribly adept at tightening the knot – is a mix of gaslighting and Judge Brack in Hedda Gabler. But less subtle. Eclair-Powell’s acute at teasing the difference between Sam’s impulsive wrong turnings, wrought by pressure, and the constructions put on her by Tom and social services as well as old friends who aren’t old friends at all.
Jeremy crow’s Rob and a variety of truculent men, social service enforcer, policeman and sceptical chorus. Lambe’s again the skirling nay-sayer, the ‘I know what you were up to’ kind, whilst Beky Peake’s gentler chorus defends her, or plays the social service good cop to Lambe’s bad.
But Peake’s Fury is another matter.Confusingly she bears the name given the play though it’s not about Fury but Sam. Both Sam and Medea after all are their own Fury. Still this old friend does pursue Sam, is a bit bent on vengeance, at least verbally. She’s perhaps a catalyst to full-fledged Fury.
After four years giving her the silent treatment Fury’s decided to forgive Sam for sleeping with her boyfriend. He’s a lousy lay and she’d have ended up marrying him, so perhaps Sam’s done her a favour. Fury takes Sam in her stolen car (she gives sex to the man who owns it every time he asks for it back) for a drive down the sea. Only there’s a sting Fury delivers, living up to her name. Something Sam doesn’t know. It’s a horribly convincing turnaround by Peake, and again the last chance of female friendship, Sam’s real consolation, also falls away.
The tautening of options like a noose, the circling social services the hateful sociopath Tom who’s now essentially kidnapped the children and taken them upstairs, gives onto the final scene where control freakery gone out of control meets a snap. Tom’s motivation, abandonment by his mother, seems not quite catalyst enough for his obsessive behaviour. But Sam’s needs no such justifying in response to Tom’s now violent cruelty.
Has Sam left her children? It’s a recurring line, You should find out. The cast are uniformly excellent, though praise must go to Cunningham’s Creepy Tom, and in particular to Israel who yet again shows affinity for Greek tragedy, bringing a hunched intensity and bubbling up from low-level panic to shattering finality. The only problem with pacing is the apotheosis is reached vocally before the end. But every pulse of Israel beats with such a character, and she’s incandescent.
Two biting plays by gifted up-and-coming playwrights in consummate performances. Only on for three days, but where else in Brighton can you see two new acclaimed plays so swiftly?