Brighton Fringe 2012
One woman show exploring the lives of several characters united by Brighton – and eccentricity.
Rose Collis has the air of someone moving to the next level: all the elements of her previous experience researching, writing and performing unite during this show in a natural and self-assured way. As an author of several books, including The New Encyclopaedia of Brighton, this show is crammed full of facts and unexpected connections. It’s more than just a lecture, however: in a theatrical exploration of colourful characters who defied expectations in order to reinvent themselves, she also sings and presents the material with enough theatricality to bring her subjects to life.
Music serves a useful purpose in a show dealing with the connection between past and present, as songs from the past readily evoke different eras and an air of nostalgia. This is directly relevant to the section dealing with Coral Browne, who re-discovered a significant tune played in an unexpected setting. The very instrument Collis plays is steeped in history, so there is a personal link to the past – these elements, together with a very appreciative audience, create an air of sharing in this experience rather than listening passively.
There are one or two interesting coincidences in which the past bleeds through to the present. One of these trouser-wearing characters ended up in prison after her attempt to live as a man ended in disaster. Her lovers and friends sold their stories to the press, and Collis draws comparisons with a remarkably similar case earlier this year, which was also followed by the protagonists telling all to the papers. So, there is nothing new under the sun, but it is new to us. It’s only when we examine the details of everyday life that we see the same types of reaction to events and people, the same curiosity and the same human impulses. It’s also true that others will take our place, as the unashamedly poignant last song reminds us.
On the face of it, this collection of stories may be a historical record of those defying gender norms, but it goes beyond social commentary. Here, it is the personal that is important, the individual full of contradictions, having to react to circumstance while attempting to assert individuality. Besides Brighton, what unites these characters is a kind of devil-may-care wit that can embrace contradictions and is therefore more human.
If Brighton is representative of a particular attitude, a particular atmosphere, then Rose gets close to evoking exactly what this is. It’s good to see a piece of Fringe Theatre that is so strongly linked to place, but that could also go far beyond it. Rose is a great ambassador for the city. I have no doubt she could expand the show with more material, take questions from the audience, or include other cabaret acts. She could easily be snapped up by television, I feel, as there has been a recent trend towards shows imparting serious subjects in an entertaining and accessible way. Collis certainly fits this bill, but to paraphrase one of the quotes in the show, I (selfishly) hope it won’t come to that. The moving singalong at the end couldn’t happen anywhere but a theatre.
There’s something of a dilemma involved in awarding five stars: the wish to label something as outstanding has to be examined – is it a personal, biased response? On reflection, it is the very evocation of a personal connection that makes this show a success. The tradition of the trouser-wearing character is in capable hands.