FringeReview UK 2018
In Audrey Cefaly’s extended version of her one-act award-winning The Gulf, itself garnering more prizes, the Tristan Bates’ Theatre hosts Matthew Gould’s finely-tuned direction, where he co-devises the set with smokily atmospheric lighting designer Mitchell Reeve, fogged about in Will Thompson’s discrete sound. Terry Besson deserves credit for accent coaching.
There’s slow moments; then there’s contemporary American theatre. If you’ve seen Annie Baker’s superb The Flick or recently John, both at the NT Dorfman; or Richard Nelson’s Apple Family and Gabriel Trilogy cycles you’ll know what to expect. It’s different to the related but pacier work of Nelson protégée Amy Herzog for example (Belleville, lately at the Donmar).
The Gulf is from this stable, extended from a one-act play to ninety minutes, both versions garnering a string of prizes and nominations. It comes with added silence – something dramatist Audrey Cefaly’s loud about. Here there’s a smaller canvas, a real boat not under canvas but eventually under stars in Tristan Bates’ Theatre abutting a jetty like small wall – we’ll get to those. And Louisa Lytton’s Kendra coining silence and fishing rods to Anna Acton’s Betty in Matthew Gould’s finely-tuned direction, where he co-devises the set with smokily atmospheric lighting designer Mitchell Reeve, fogged about in Will Thompson’s discrete sound.
It’s not just inset silence. It continues into the unsettling start where the audience aren’t entirely sure when to settle. Many will revel in such microscopic naturalism, pauses, a leisurely hypnotic unfolding. Both The Flick and John lasted three hours. The Gabriel Trilogy kept an audience rapt between 11.00 and 22.00 with intervals at the Attenborough Centre in last year’s Brighton Festival. Many had seen The Apple Family and wanted more.
Here dialogue or monologue is initially all Acton’s Betty. Her co-dependency requires everything from perpetual small talk to consulting a self-help manual on their future jobs; her perpetual attention-grabbing and disempowers this relationship in crisis. Kendra wants to fish and indeed catches a small fish in a fishless river; which they net and let go.
Both Acton and Lytton’s Kendra pitch their drawling South accents like fingers in water, with the lurking dangers of crocodiles (we hear a splash late on). Terry Besson deserves credit for accent coaching. Kendra’s the beautiful (as Betty says) taciturn practical one, who strips down the motor when it emblematically snarls up in weeds. ‘Prison officer’ suggests Betty helpfully, adding that no-one one of course dreams of being a prison officer. There’s talk of a woman with fifteen cats who earlier on had a more colourful sexual history. Betty’s own sexual need for Kendra is as palpable as it’s clearly irritating to Kendra, who nevertheless is reluctantly in love with Betty.
The crisis emerges paradoxically through Betty’s amorous co-dependence and revelations about never being able to be alone. Cefaly’s drawn Betty’s socially aspirational gaucheness with affection. Betty’s a comic lexicon of shibboleths and wilful misunderstandings over faddy food and fashionable terms. She’s currently a waitress who aspires to be a librarian but swallowed her dictionary the wrong way. Kendra’s language, lapidary and assured, is in its Sam Shepard minimalism brutally apt, defensively refusing middle class blandishments. Beyond this though lies the loss of a father whom Kendra uneasily imitates. At least she had one Betty reflects. Cefaly’s psychology is subtle and unprescriptive.
There’s a wall, and the Mexican wall joke rears up as part of the post-Trump rewrite garnering a rare laugh from the audience who by the end were rapturous in their appreciation of a play that pulls down walls for those prepared to see them.
Gould’s team have made this as authentic as some of U. S. casts who travelled over from The New York Public Theater for the Nelson plays. There’ll always be some who don’t get this kind of theatre, but there’s an increasing appetite for and understanding of it. When you do, like Kendra’s Betty, you’ll be hooked.