FringeReview UK 2019
When I’m not writing reviews I’m a photographer, and recently I bought a wonderful book called ‘Contact Sheets’. Back in the days of film, photographers would lay out a set of negatives from a ‘shoot’ on photographic paper, to produce a print of the entire session, from which they could choose the best ones. The joy of this book was that we could look at sets of pictures from iconic photographers like Robert Capa or Cecil Beaton, and examine how their ideas developed as the shoot progressed, and which images they finally chose or rejected.
The Brighton Scratch night has the same sense of looking over someone’s shoulder at a work in progress, with new writing being tried out while still in an unfinished state. Some are short plays which might possibly be extended to full length; others are nearer completion but needing an airing to get a sense of audience reaction. It’s fascinating to watch creative work as it’s ongoing, before its final polish; like looking under the bonnet of a car to see the belts and pipework of the engine.
And as one of these plays will be put on at the Rialto Theatre as part of next year’s Fringe – the Scratch Night audiences will decide which one – and others will certainly be staged elsewhere, there’s no way I’d want to miss seeing how the final results turn out.
So Rialto Theatre, along with Unmasked Theatre, Pretty Villain and George Lassos The Moon Theatre, need recognition for providing a very important service. Thanks.
Six plays this year. Done with the simplest of props, and no scenery on the black Rialto stage. All of them pretty much complete in themselves, rather than being excerpts from a longer piece. Plays rather like short stories, often with an unexpected twist or revelation at the end. Interestingly, a number of them had a science-fiction flavour. Because of that simple structure – ‘build the situation and then reveal the surprise’ – I’m not sure that all of them could be worked up into full length pieces.
‘Music For Cats’ by Fran Lanting. directed by Scott Rob
One of the major time-travel tropes is the ‘Grandfather Paradox’, the idea that if you go back and change the past, by killing your grandfather for example, it could have significant consequences in the present. ‘Music For Cats’ links the concept of commercial time travel with our contemporary insurance industry, with its small print get-out wording. “I’m sorry, that’s excluded under Clause Forty-Seven”.
Peter is the rather dismissive company representative (James Macauley in an unforgettable red bow tie) whose job it is to rejcct The Woman’s claim on her policy. For the loss of a son it seems she never had – remember the contradictions of time travel. When she gets difficult, and Christine Kempell turning her gaze away from Peter towards the far distance made the woman seem very difficult indeed, Peter calls in his much steelier Manager. As they do. Steely – I wouldn’t want to argue with Karina Mills. There were a lot of clever lines about the nature of time, and the piece could be extended to flesh out the story much more fully, but at this length it came over as a bit word-heavy, with too many concepts jostling for our attention.
‘Sammy’ by Christopher Owen. directed by Matt Turpin.
A slow start to this one, letting us work out for ourselves that the couple’s child had died sometime before (‘Show, don’t tell’, as the Creative Writing mantra puts it). A very believable portrayal of coping with grief – or not coping. Bill Allender’s John had moved on, Zo Morgan’s Carrie was still locked into Sammy’s death, five years later.
And then suddenly there’s Moira – Fundamentalist Christian, fundamentally totally lacking in empathy. Elly Tipping played her without ever seemingly pausing for breath, with fanatical commitment to the cause of baby Sammy’s right to life, after his doctors allowed him to die from his incurable condition. It’s really a play about social media, and people who live by reality TV and celebrity culture, and how it makes us feel that people who are total strangers are somehow ‘family’. John is appalled by her behaviour, and Moira is the creepiest thing I’ve seen in months. So well written and portrayed that I believed in her as a real person, there in front of me. Something that good theatre is able to do – create living people out of black marks on a sheet of paper. A miracle
‘Shy The Devil’ by Wendy Haines directed by Pip O’Neill
A very funny contemporary take on magic, this one. A pair of modern schoolgirls trying to set a curse on men. All men – because “men are dicks”
Morgan Bradbury’s Grace is driven to magical revenge because her relationship with her dad isn’t good. There’s good interplay between the intense, obsessed Grace, and her cynical friend Faye (Ella Verity), who’s not really convinced by the book of spells, but goes along with her friend. Nice balance in casting – Grace dark haired with glasses, Faye blonde and a bit more worldly. Some good lines about the difficulty of attempting medieval formulations with modern supermarket products. But there’s an unforeseen result to their amateur necromancy – be careful what you wish for.
‘The Anchor and The Wave’ by Joe Von Malachowski directed by Lauren Varnfield
I have my own title for this one – ‘Clocks and Cocks’ It’s a couple in their thirties – Guy and Gal (John Black and Pip O’Neill) have been together ten years; obviously young urban professionals, presumably with successful careers and a surfeit of material goods, who need to find some real meaning to their existence. He worries about getting old, and ill; she worries about domesticity, motherhood; whether she’s cut out for it.
Her problem is that her biological clock is ticking. In his case it’s sexuality, he’s drawn to the idea of sex with a man. There’s some great dialogue as they discuss their options, one of which is that – what he does, she does. Gal insists there must be rules if they are going to try this. and what Rules they must observe “Rule Three – Don’t tell your mother!”
So they decide to both try same-sex experience. Gal gets a non-stop talker ( Katie Pattison) who can’t believe Gal’s so inexperienced at the gay scene. Guy gets a strong silent type, Aaron (Jon Howlett). “Do you want me to suck your cock?” is about all Guy’s date says (and one assumes there’ll be a quid pro quo …). Our boy’s face tells us that he’s in much deeper than he’d imagined …
Lovely staging from Lauren Varnfield, Minimal, with just four black boxes that could be seating, then became the couple’s bed. She gave us evocative lighting to differentiate the two couples at the end, and choreographed a series of beautiful stage movements, like moments of eye contact between them, and Gal stuffing the couple’s duvet while discussing their relationship.
‘Brain Fog’ by David Varela. directed by Christine Kempell.
I thought that this one was going to turn into a documentary about the causes and effects of Multiple Sclerosis. Lucy Mepstead’s Dr Weller was so much more informative than many doctors I’ve known. The symptoms of MS that Kate McGann’s Lisa experienced crept up on us – and on her. Memory and hearing loss while watching television, that her partner Nick (Neil James) notices but Lisa won’t admit to at first.
It’s Progressive MS, which means it’s going to get worse. So Dr Weller offers a radical cure – scanning Lisa’s brain into a different, healthy, body. Transferring all her memories and emotions, so that her personality can continue without the ravages of the disease.
It’s an interesting concept, and clever science fiction, like something out of ‘Black Mirror’. But there’s an unforeseen consequence that I hadn’t considered, which produced a harrowing conclusion to the piece.
‘Battlesong’ by Aine King. directed by Luke Ofield
I confess – I plumped for this one on the first night, even though it was a different play which got the Rialto audience’s vote. Totally bonkers, with some completely over-the-top costumes and dialogue. It started with what I took to be a homeless person on the street somewhere, in his anorak and sleeping bag – but it turned out to be fifteen year old Jack, trapped with a group of historic re-enactment fanatics preparing to relive the Battle of Hastings.
Jack just wants to play music, at a festival some distance from there, in miles. But then he meets Matilda, and she’s come from even further away, in years.
Who exactly Matilda is, wasn’t spelt out overtly – “show, don’t tell” – but the situation could certainly be extended further if the piece is turned into a full-length play. For now, we had Saxon warriors in warpaint slashing at each other with edged weapons – and then stopping for a moment to check their mobile phones … Unforgettable.
Too many people to namecheck in the review – see how I’m breaking the ‘fourth wall’ of reviewing here – so here they are. Jack was Ruben Pol, Matilda was Morgan Bradbury. Jack’s parents, and assorted re-enactment fanatics, were Sarah Widdas, Ella Verity, Warren Saunders, John Black and Murray Scott.
Brighton Scratch Night 2019. Six plays, three nights, enthusiastic audiences. And a fully produced piece to look forward to at next year’s Fringe. What’s not to like?