Brighton Fringe 2017
NorthSouth Theatre’s Jason Gerdes created Pals directed by Shazz Andrews and featuring Gerdes and three other actors arrives at Sweet Waterfront 1. Funded from FEAST Cornwall and Cultivator Cornwall it’s made a great impact with starry reviews throughout Cornwall itself; now it’s touring. At Brighton Sweet Waterfront 1 till May 16th.
It’s not been done like this before. NorthSouth Theatre’s Jason Gerdes created Pals directed by Shazz Andrews and featuring Gerdes and three other actors arrives at Sweet Waterfront 1. Though we associate the First War Pals Battalions with the north (the Accrington for instance) this show localises it to every community it tours. Funded from FEAST Cornwall and Cultivator Cornwall it’s made a great impact with starry reviews throughout Cornwall itself; now it’s touring.
It might seem another play on Great War suffering, and in effect it is, but craft and originality make this compelling, not to mention the remarkable set cramped and cut down for the Sweet Venue space. The drama’s slightly cut by around 20 minutes too – many shows are to fit Fringe requirements – but the essentials and remarkable time-frame jumps are intact. And there’s singing.
Jason Gerdes’ Stan and his brother-in-law lifelong friend George Steven Kelly are interrupted by their ‘daft’ friend Joey (Chris martin) who’s just joined up. We rewind three times ot this moment at slightly different points once from Joey’s perspective. We follow remarkably vivid scenes of medicals (Jason Squibb multi-roling from here) barking sergeants and violent rushes out the privy interrupted by rats and a bare-arsed George rushing out again. Another rush to the privy has direr consequences later on.
It’s these incremental details of living, the lice, rats carrying a dead man’s finger, rain and shell fragments competing for the greatest curse, and the occasional bird, that remind us how fresh this play is, stripping back clichés, recalling Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Returning We Hear the Larks’ or indeed his own observations of ‘Lice’ and famously, rats in ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’.
It’s a play about friendship emeshed in tender regard toughened outwardly. George has just married san’s feisty sister and got her pregnant. Whilst Stan can look forward to all the girls he’ll enjoy in France George pretends to act the married man for five seconds. Neither get anywhere near them. The superbly-realised dugout scenery allows everything from rushes over the top to the privy or indeed marching off wounded.
The burden of conversation’s on the two leads, Chris Martin’s Joey it transpires has Asperger’s and suddenly eloquent, uses complex words and syntax to describe the birds he recognizes learned from his clearly bookish father. Martin makes the most of this wide-eyed slant in the sun – he’s particularly effective in suggesting eternal gawp then sudden grasp of detail astonishing his pals. Much of the time Martin hunches silent throughout the scenes which underuses his potential. It’s entirely possible that some scenes involving Joey were cut, though at the moment it’s a little unbalanced, Martin underused in this short version.
Squibb however modulates authority figures more visibly, and very well: doctor, sergeant, lieutenant, another un-ranked officer and medical orderly. Finally Squibb in officer garb reads Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the fallen’ entire and very movingly, which again shifts perspective.
The other two are sharply differentiated. George though married first is callow, acting if not actually younger then more immature. Kelly manages to convey unsettled adolescence and sudden learning at an effective lick – he never quite grows up, but will eventually have to. Stan the strong-minded one who can allude to the Three Musketeers and pronounce French badly, is a sharper tool and Gerdes is able to range over conflicted, complex loyalties and bitter wisdom. So it’s mystifying when he appears to break down. There’s a reason: the tension between disclosure and secrecy is almost too much for him, but he must keep George going. The dynamic’s set at this pitch and winds inexorably.
Or it would, and predictably, were it not for the rewind. We’re twice thrust back to the beginning as noted, and each time it inevitably adjusts perspective. Elements alluded to earlier click, the eternal reciprocity of tears wrenches what it must from blithe innocence and braggadocio against the shattering realities. What’s also important is that losses fall everywhere, and secrets and double-binds complicate the apparent simplicities of kill or be killed, or the obligations of lifelong friendship.
This play fully deserves its accolades, and is clearly ideally seen in an uncut version not cabin’d cribb’d confined as all Fringe venues must be. We must be grateful to the Fringe, though, or hardly anyone outside Cornwall would be seeing it.