Brighton Fringe 2019
Written by Pete Barrett, directed designed and lit by Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill with Unmasked Theatre. Production Manager Katie Bond Till June 2nd.
A revelatory play by Pete Barrett right at the end of the Fringe at the Rialto is worth flagging. It won the 2018 Scratch Night also at the Rialto. A superb ensemble piece, it’s original, detailed, funny and ultimately heartfelt.
Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill with Unmasked Theatre are a phenomenon. With Ofield still only 24, and O’Neill 26, they’ve co-written 17 productions and this pair direct too. Unmasked Theatre won Best of Fringe IYAF – for good reason.
The only way is Essex via Yorkshire. It’s early 1985: Frank the miner likes doing his job and reading the Sun. Unfortunately, Maggie’s after his job and his new housemates definitely don’t like him reading the Sun. That’s because it’s Essex University and the University’s Feminist Society supports the miners’ strike. But not the miners’ habits.
In a riotous clash of class, morals and feminism, very traditional Frank finds himself bunking down with three very modern students at the heart of the picketing wars.
In a country seeking to eradicate his livelihood, Frank must decide how he’d like to be remembered once the line’s inevitably drawn. Still, Frank’s not arrived yet.
It opens with three of the cast members, in order of appearance Brontë Sandwell as low-self-esteem Claire, Jessica Smith’s sensible pragmatic Emma, and Ella Verity’s politically active and feminist Rachel. Before Rachel arrives Claire’s found asleep on the sofa – so student-land before loans crushed even lie-ins – is cajoled by Emma who can’t believe Claire’s having an affair with married lecturer Jake (Chris Gates) and decides egged on by Rachel to do something about it. But Rachel’s more direct even than that. It’s both funny and unnerving. Though Rachel’s ringing the wife’s a joke (it’s really the talking clock), wife Melanie ‘not Mel’ does eventually turn up.
These Essex University students are real, or their actions are. Expressing solidarity during the Miners Strike of 1984-85 they invite one, Neil James’ Frank, to their campus. That culture clash is more than on the work cards.
Frank though is no archetypal sexist. Though he starts by commenting how slovenly the girls are – teacup cultures with three weeks spoors don’t appeal. But he soon adapts to their fiat on his reading the Sun and picks up The Female Eunuch. He’s intelligent and sensitive – certainly willing to learn with the right tutor.
Naturally he also picks up, despite himself, a mutual attraction to Emma. They’re sensible, nothing will happen. Emma’s a good Catholic virgin and when she gives herself, it’ll be important. Frank too hates the idea of that predatory Jake abusing Claire.
Then with agonizing slowness they kiss, and Claire’s Jake walks in. Now they’re on the same side Jake says and later takes Frank out drinking. But Frank’s only happy to take the beer.
What Barrett does particularly well is mesh a triple plot with historical events. Frank’s part of a team of twelve miners trying to persuade drivers of a Wivenhoe-dock haulage firm not to drive coal out. They fail lamentably but other miners are growing angrier. It’s been peaceful. Then there’s Claire’s affair, and Emma’s and Frank’s honorable attempts to keep their hands off each other. Then the wives: two heavily pregnant women – Melanie (Kim Wright) and Frank’s wife Anne (Karen Antoni) down to make sure Frank’s all right, turn up at the same time. There’s a fine scene between them too.
They’re there as Emma Rachel and Claire congregate back home. All but Claire see them, blocked off as she is by the other two in front just as she confesses something. Just then Jake arrives hollering promises to Claire through the door. And there’s flowers…. Jake’s shouting outside ‘I’m going to leave Melanie’ is a situation worthy of Ayckbourn, several plates colliding at once.
There’s a showdown, but will there be two? Rachel’s learned a bit of tact, not much, Claire confesses, she’s just this morning thrown Jake over she says. Melanie’s used to it though this time, what will she do? And if Anne finds out about Emma, she’d throw Frank out.
For Frank too there’s another moment of truth: a lorry driver’s accidentally killed (this really happened), no-one realizing anyone was in his cab when blocks of concrete were thrown down from a bridge. But if any one of the twelve confess to not doing anything or admit who did, those responsible would never see day again. So silence means everyone’s jailed – including Frank who was trying to stop it all. There’s a fine epilogue, with Emma and Frank. It’s immensely tender but alert.
The acting’s wholly convincing. Sandwell as dippy naïve Claire, Verity as dungareed feminist prepared to take drastic action. Gates is all oleaginous cad, Wright tough-minded and wryly intelligent and Antoni’s skirling performance of Anne brings a robustly tender element of adult values in a play when post-adolescents are discovering sex.
More unflappable, quietly feminist, Smith at first exudes sensible sister mode, but with an undercurrent of passion stronger than the other two glows with a warmth wiser than her years: for her this isn’t a fling but something passionate and meaningful even though she knows it can’t last. It’s a delightful role. James’ command of northern idiom and a quick-witted sense of his predicament rings with conviction – as does his agonized attraction to Emma, against all his convictions.
It’s a strong play, historically grounded, setting us up for that very rare thing, a comedy about a historically grim clash. Here it’s between Thatcher and unions, union members and their naïve allies. But also between cultures, one of them about to be swept away, leaving other bitter things in its wake.
The fact this play has taken so long to stage ought to annoy too. Barrett is simply delighted it’s on. He has every right to be: it’s a strong, committed production of a very fine comedy.