FringeReview UK 2023
Now a superb double-bill, and makes a compelling case for these two shows to be yoked together, with their intertwining of family, sisterhood, abuse and terrible consequences.
The Mitfords: repurposed with a co-director and with the consummate Emma Wilkinson Wright’s further developing her characters, this play comes across as convincingly as it did in its 2014 outing.
The Good Dad is Intricate, fiercely intelligent, this play packs far more force than some twice its length. Sarah Lawrie’s intensity is magnificent.
Directed by Anthony Shrubsall Co Director and Dramaturg (The Mitfords), Director (The Good Dad), Sarah Lawrie Co Director and Dramaturg (The Good Dad), Set Design Male Arcucci (The Mitfords), Lighting and Sound Design by Chula Emembolu (The Good Dad) Adam Bottomley Production Manager and Relighter, David Hunt, Technical Manager, Jaymie Quin-Stewart Board Operator and Stage Manager.
Straight from Edinburgh a slew of “PickOfTheFringe” shows have descended on The Playground Theatre in Latimer Road, off Latimer Road tube. Though it’s not possible to get to them all, they’re some of the very finest as reported by other reviewers.
This Double Bill of Gail Louw’s plays comprises one outstanding solo drama and another which has developed hugely from its Edinburgh outing.
I’ve not been to The Playground before but can report this 2017 theatre run by Peter Tate (himself picking up a tranche of Outstanding nominations) who previously used it as a theatre development hub is a jewel. Beautifully-appointed and provisioned, it can be reached realtively easily with the new map provided.
Gail Louw’s celebrated anywhere but in the UK where she’s lived since 1976. There’s Shackleton’s Carpenter and The Ice-Cream Boys about post-Apartheid politics in her native South Africa (both Jermyn Street). A Life Twice Given addresses the way grief and cloning entwine like DNA. Or there’s Being Brahms, and the shadow self of an immigrant German artist; or Blonde Poison an astonishing anti-Nazi tale. That was performed in Sydney Opera House for example.
This 2014 work starring Emma Wilkinson Wright (The Changeling, Southwark, The Mitfords Edinburgh Fringe, The Only White, Chelsea) is now co-directed by Anthony Shrubsall who also directs the following show.
With a set by Male Arcucci drawing on a gallimaufry of costume changes and props, Wilkinson Wright picks her way across four sisters, three continents and at least two ideologies, sickled over with a pale cast of Tory upbringing.
Though there’s a brother Tom who get killed and a younger sister, Louw keeps to the iconic quartet of influential socialites – and the rejection of that role – covering the 1930s and 1940s. She manages this as a voice coach who finds different registers ad poise for each. In it we see explored the “bond by love but divided by hatred” trope that’s often use to describe the sisters. Hatred here is not personal, as the mafia say but ideological.
There’s Unity’s high-floating, ethereal mania, with love of Adolf its defining feature; who sweetly gives Unity a pearl-handled gun. There’s at the opposite register Nancy, husky-smoking society novelist (Love for Lydia, Love in a Cold Climate) initially apolitical but pushed to work for the Red Cross for Spanish Civil War Refugees and against the Nazis.
There’s Diana, who like Unity loves fascism and has an affair with then marries British Union of Fascists supremo Oswald Mosley when his wife conveniently dies at 33. There’s a nasal tang reserved for he steely armour, finally broken down in prison. And finally with a rush of relief in Wilkinsonb Wright’s ‘natural’ default voice the sanity (as it were) of Communism: Jessica (Decca to her sisters, but Louw thought this might confuse) really does sound the outrage and release we all feel whilst hearing either fascism or political indifference elsewhere. Yet Jessica too has to bear more tragedy than most.
Nancy Mitford’s iteration continually chiis in as wilinson wright and Louw subvert the text with admission that Nancy has less agency than the others. A born observer, she’s also the least characterful in Keats’ sense of negative capability (everything delights the chameleon novelist), save with the actor’s signature drawl.
Nevertheless Wilkinson wright with languorous drawing-out builds Nancy’s corner of plain reason, of someone not easily perplexed by politics, but vexed in the extreme plumps for Jessica’s side of things: if not Communism, then at least Liberalism at large.
Nancy’s also used as seducer. When Jessica runs off to join dashing Communist lover Giles Romilly in the Spanish Civil War at 19, the parents try to make her a Ward of Court and Nancy’s sent in a destroyer with rich food to inveigle starving Jessica on board. This has pre-echoes of surrealist painter Leonora Carrington being rescued in 1940 from Franco’s Spain and an insane asylum by her nanny on a British submarine.
The finely-calibrated comedy here is infectious. Jessica, straight-talking, alert and quick vocally in Wilkinson Wright’s hands contrasts with the drawling “darling” of Nancy. And proves tougher. There’s much in store for Jesssica.
For ruthless Diana hardest to like, there’s lut, ambition, a tossing away of a sexy husband for someone with psychopathic charm and smart uniform. Louw insinuates the shudder of words and Wilkinson Wright the dark thrill of Diana’s infatuation, quite ruthless as well as the journey involving imprisonment under Section 18B as a fascist in the War. Diana’s shivering, her separation from a 11-month old baby (Max Mosley…) she’s breast-feeding, and an eternity of separation and shivering is piteous. Jessica though is – understandably – unmoved.
Will Jessica prove unmoved by high-pitched floaty Unity? As fascist as Diana but (at a stretch forgivably) more touched, Unity spouts the vilest fascism and yet is bereft of love from Jessica, her favourite. And perhaps from her beloved Adolf. Whilst in the nursery/bedroom these sisters were separated down the middle by far left and right regalia. This has moved from bedroom to the board-game of the world, and people are dying. Including so many close to home.
Wilkinson Wright inhabits the pathos and utter confusion of Unity, with big hands and feet but not unattractive she’s assured, as she looks on Diana the beauty. And it’s her words which end the monodrama.
Repurposed with a co-director and with the consummate Wilkinson Wright’s further developing her characters, this play comes across as convincingly as it did in its 2014 outing.
The Good Dad (A Love Story)
So being special is a freighted, frightened word. Being special to your dad comes with special responsibilities. It’s just that you can’t always see what they are. Special’s a word that percolates with devastating force, not least in the mouths of two sisters. And how one of them, Donna, winds up encouraging a bird into her prison cell strangely echoes her life. The bird at least has sense. Donna calls it Johnny, the name of her youngest child of four. He’s special too.
This revival of the acclaimed 2020 The Good Dad (A Love Story) is again staged at the Playground Theatre. It’s about the extremity of special treatment from puberty onwards affirms Gail Louw’s extraordinarily varied output.
Sarah Lawrie’s padding about, an almost equine deportment and sudden crouch tells us all we need to know about her current confinement, freezing in a cell where she shouts to warders to give her a little heat. It echoes the previous moment in Diana Mosley’s journey.
But after what Donna’s lived, is it more a prison than anywhere else? As Donna addresses the prison of her days, we’re ravelled back into the minds not just of her but her mother, Susan, curiously complacent for quite some time about what’s happening; and Carol, Donna’s twin sibling. Carol’s disturbed, withdrawn and declares a special interest in Johnny. It’s not enough Donna’s named her firstborn after Carol: Caroline. There’s something curious about her, and certainly Johnny, whom Carol wishes to take to another continent with her.
Directed by with a quiet mesmerising build-up by Anthony Shrubsall, the clean lighting and subtle sound design by Chula Emembolu – most present in that initial rush of birdcall – are minimal. There’s a light coral-coloured shawl in the traditional black space, a ledge where pieces of chocolate are stached. And that’s it. Even the chocolate trope fades. There’s a tall stool, that takes on power later. Lawrie’s perching, un-perching, pacing, ravelling up a shawl does service for three women and other voices including David, the good dad.
Lawrie’s is a phenomenally reined-in performance, simmering, boiling with a mix of dread and anger. The way Donna’s groomed, almost sacrificially chosen by the rest of her family quite complacently to stay behind and look after the good dad with the bad ticker, begs layers of complicity that involve, perhaps most of the family.
The truly creepy moments when Donna’s edged towards, assailed in a shiver of flinched rejections is spine-chilling. As is the way the family seem oblivious, and of course, being special, with “our secret” Donna herself remains silent.
This is no ordinary tale of grooming though. It involves pregnancies, Donna becoming the ‘other woman’ to her own mother, moving out with Dad, becoming suddenly – incredibly young – rather like her own mother. And finding she’s not quite as special after all when still only in her late twenties “going from child to middle-aged in a moment”, she finds David’s eyes stray towards his new family.
Carol’s shuddering journey too suggests acute disturbances, displacements about somehow being abandoned. One of the miraculous corollaries here is being the sister not chosen brings its own trauma, and net of damages. Carol’s obsessive regard for Johnny, the “special” one becomes almost as creepy as her father’s. But really he’s in a class of his own. Something has to give, something to break the cycle. Never have the parenthesis of a title – A Love Story – proved so bitter.
Lawrie’s intensity is magnificent. Her core performance of Donna is riveting. Almost as much so is her portrayal of Carol, the fragile sister left behind, just as Donna’s left behind tangled in all the might-have-beens of normal love and family. Susan’s a little less realized because more passive till she makes one stand; and Lawrie suitably hardens her voice.
The most thrilling moment is when the sisters unite on a cathartic decision. Everyone in the audience breathes out, are at one with their decision.
Running at just under an hour this play packs far more force than some twice its length. Intricate, fiercely intelligent and addressing multiple corollaries of abuse, The Good Dad shows how these widen beyond the victim with both further casualties and victims whose choosing to do nothing destroys them. And then there’s of course, the special ones like Johnny. However she picks out a life afterwards, Donna’s remaining family aren’t walking on eggshells. They are the eggshells from which there’s no real awakening. Outstanding.
This is now a superb double-bill, and makes a compelling case for these two shows to be yoked together, with their intertwining of family, sisterhood, abuse and terrible consequences.