Brighton Fringe 2016
Wired Theatre under director/deviser Sylvia Vickers and many of her regular team of older actors revisit one venue. Unlike their previous political play, this new piece inverts norms of family politics. Only a dozen or fourteen at most can accompany any performance.
Sylvia Vickers and Wired Theatre return with their extraordinary mixture of situationist experimentalism and a cast of older actors, people who helped make that theatre still at the edge of it.
Last year’s Come Unto These Yellow Sands – about Greenham Common and its personal outfall – was a high-water mark even for Wired; it’s always intriguing to see where they’re headed next. The audience head with them trooping through living room, kitchen, once upstairs to a prone man on a bed.
Dancing in the Dark makes the personal political, both familial and psycho-sexual tensions woven into a tightly-plotted family shop of horrors which happens to be very funny – largely through insensitive slippages and gaffes families are prone to.
Mary Middleton – the name of the house-owner who really does present an Open House here – invites the audience in and relates her still-lives busting out prettily on the walls. Very active life burls in from the hallway and the family bursts in. Mary becomes Jean (Jackie Thomas), the woman who married into Charles’ family. He’s the youngest of three siblings circling their frozen tyrant of matriarch Lavinia, all Bernada Alba manqué, Lorca’s shrivelling mother. Lavinia’s suddenly home from her voluntary exile in France, and equally clearly unwanted.
Gillian Eddison monsters the part of Lavinia with subtle prejudice delivering a spitting hatred for all her children. Charles, successful businessman was faint favourite, till something happened – this is where we sashay back to either the recent past of a few years, or into a repeated fugue of blind man’s buff the three siblings and playmate Jean jump-cut into aged six. Most uproarious, all four crowd under the kitchen table giggling of front bottoms, disputing babies till discovered by an implacable Ellison. This might all seem like Time and the Conways teleported by Caryl Churchill but the direction’s ultimately forward.
We see Charles – Graham White’s mobile vulnerable portrayal undercutting success – pursued by wife Jean for taking an overdose. Jackie Thomas is for the most part the coper, and at each stage of this drama we see a character break down. Charles tries to kill himself for an unspecified reason. The telling moment before this narrative occurs later.
Three nodal events coalesce around the childhood time signature: the father’s funeral, Lavinia’s birthday a little later, and the present return from France.
The funeral which dominates the earlier narrative in the kitchen, slows to a Chekhovian haunting of grief and outburst: Wired aren’t afraid of silences and this ten-minute scene builds with detailed naturalism around post-funeral drinks taking their toll on Charles and Andrea. Andrea the daughter breaks down, closest to her father, inane communications explode and Lavinia herself shows trace elements of grief, treating of Tom her husband’s demand for children. It’s the play’s most sympathetic treatment of Lavinia: trapped, she snatches in her turn.
If Charles the businessman stares into an abyss of identity the sister Andrea (Angela Ferns) has succeeded by being daddy’s girl, a lawyer like him seeking his approval and though taking a husband living a separate life, sexually free, taking on judges for helps in briefs and sometimes out of them in others younger – ‘I gave Justin his marching orders’ she remarks cougar-like of a toy boy, replaced by a platonic affair with just such a helpful QC. She’s referred to as a nymphomaniac, but clearly her sexual identity’s a balance of love and distance. Perhaps the least explored character, she acts as an ambivalent catalyst suggesting Charles affirm his nature to Lavinia.
The eldest, Peter a First from Cambridge and a Readership at Sussex in English Lavinia never acknowledges, is as she puts it needy. It’s simple. He bids for love, at a crucial point post-funeral reads Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Hill’ to his mother who pours bile on him. Wired Stalwart Robin Humphreys essays a fine portrait of a man whose partner David dies in his arms of AIDS yet whose mother despises him for even mentioning his partner.
There’s some Turgenev-like duetting: two brothers, Andrea talking to both and to Jean who suddenly has to cope with Charles’ secret life, one Carol who indeed is noticed peering out of a window. There’s far more to this than black camiknickers. Jean the peacemaker’s unsurprisingly the last to explode into grief.
Yet when Lavinia proposes selling her Pimlico pad, the bolt-hall they all use, there’s a bout of resistance with a surprising act you might just guess, to shiver the dynamic.
Wired are tightening their narratives, vectored to a conclusion open-ended but showing a process undergone, a long stage –usually ranging decades – suddenly over. Eddison’s matriarch sets the chill with distinction. This dynamic asks questions: are we psycho-sexually conditioned in early life or is that given nature merely prismed through local atrophies and discords?
Thomas is exemplary in her coping, shuddering collapse, and renewal; Ferns’ earlier explosion of grief wholly convincing. White plays hyper-vulnerable which at first seems at odds with his persona, but falls into place. Humphreys’ forte this time is erudite pathos bewildered beyond intelligence. He understates this precisely.
Vickers produces another winner; with a Fringe standard the Open House truly subverted for anyone fortunate enough to see this. Thomas White’s recordings with arrangements of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and others lends a timelessly passé feeling to scenes; his blast of Stockhausen as disruptive aesthetic quite inspired.