Brighton Fringe 2021
An expansion of Clean from 2019, directed by writer Sam Chittenden, for Different Theatre with music by Simon Scardanelli. A few props, like line baskets with cotton sheets, and fine period costumes by Delphine du Barry has been expanded with the church interior using the gallery. Ben Alexander plays Cello and Scardinelli himself leads on Guitar and Ukelele. Sharon Drain Accordion, Judy Bignell Ukelele, Jack Cryer Keyboards, Rosa Samuels Flute, Amy Sutton Ukelele and Keyboards. Till June 13th.
Back in 2019 Sam Chittenden co-directed with Katie Turner-Halliday the premiere of her site-specific Clean – A Roundhill Story. In fact on the actual drying ground of the old Mayo Laundry, where these histories leap out – spanning the 1880s-2020s. It won Brighton Fringe Award for Best New Play.
Now it’s back, expanded by a third with twenty, not just nine songs by Simon Scardinelli, and becomes Clean – the Musical; Book and Lyrics all Chittenden’s and she directs. No longer site-specific, it’s in The One Church in Gloucester Place. It’s also turned into Chittenden’s masterpiece.
Like several of Chittenden’s works Clean’s a lyrical homage to the hard graft of female experience over many years, only the seven women whose stories are featured here all inhabit the area around Roundhill Terrace, where the laundry used to be. Chittenden fuses lengthy documentary research into some characters, with imaginative reconstruction that in 2021 takes her further into the story and twists 2019 could not have foreseen. From 85 minutes in its 2019 incarnation, it’s now two hours twenty with a similar fifteen-minute interval.
Clean again features Sharon Drain as Millicent from 1880, and a new cast for the six other actors too, playing musical instruments (Drain plays the Accordion). Judey Bignell returns to accompany on Ukulele at strategic points. She now also takes the part of Dr Helen Boyle, from 1905. Newcomer Anna Chloe Moorey as Meg in 1929, 24-year-old daughter of a Suffragette. Amy Sutton – who’s notably worked with Chittenden, but not in the original Clean – takes a central role as Dot the laundry manager of 1950-51 during a smallpox outbreak; resonances this time couldn’t be clearer. She also plays Ukulele and Keyboards.
Newcomer and Flautist Rosa Samuels is Ruby from 1975, a young woman seeking the new Women’s Refuge. Also playing Keyboard, Jack Cryer’s Juliet from 1995 contemplates menopause and solitude long after Greenham, and finally Holly Ray’s Tasha, returning to her dead mother’s house in 2021 comes across her mother’s research of all those who lived here. We start with her. Ben Alexander plays Cello and Scardinelli himself leads on Guitar and Ukelele.
The full costumes, set-pieces and layout are again designed by Delphine Du Barry. They’re first-rate, from the 1880 pale blue and white laundry-uniform, through the 1905 starched-black doctor and the green-and-white 1929 garb, still striking, to the postwar economy 1950 equivalent of the original 1880 uniform complete with 1940s turban, to the really memorable period costume from 1975 leather and midi, through to the purple dress-easiness of 1995 and the white slacks and casual greyness of a young woman in 2021.
The key ensemble piece ‘The Difference’ bears the refrain ‘What a Difference We Made’ the first of the Chittenden/Simon Scardanelli collaboration we hear. Everything in this production’s quietly thrilling but the ensemble singing and playing is spellbinding. It’s a terrifically memorable song too, and knocks pretty well any new musical number elsewhere into oblivion. I can still hear it, and three or four other numbers. That’s a hit-rate meaning (among other things) we have a hit musical. ‘Sisterhood; is another and soon after the 1950-51 narrative with Dot beings ‘Smallpox’ yet another.
Clean moves after that ensemble intro to where synchronous stories thread through each other, sometimes make connections. Tasha’s storyline is the narrative thread as she sieves through what she’s been left.
Du Barry’s props, like linen baskets with cotton sheets, and fine period costumes (particularly the first four chronologically) are all that’s needed to let the different voices through. The church décor and galleries above allow a terracing of three tiers, sheets hung over and flapped, and a drape Votes For All in the distinctive Suffragette light blueish-purple (almost mauve), green and white.
It’s easiest to separate the stories sequentially though it’s worth emphasising this isn’t how they appear.
Drain’s Millicent the hard-working laundry woman of the 1880s who stoically relates the death of her first two daughters from typhoid via the milk, when in service. Her youngest Martha also in service meets a very different fate. Drain relates a patient out fall as she piles the laundry back and forth – there’s latterly a mute aid by women from different periods, picking out and hanging, or re-folding; a nicely-wrought expression of unity. Drain tells her circumstances with a matter-of-fact faith in the numinous though not church, with white sheets a recurring metaphor. There’s an outcome for Millicent though, and an exquisitely haunted song near the end, ‘Lullaby’ taking us back to the lyrical territory Drain assayed in Chittenden’s Sary. The outcome though takes us to the most remarkable of the seven women.
Bignell’s Dr Helen Boyle really existed, and her companion doctor Mabel. Setting up practice as women doctors in 1905 was a challenge the two women found oddly exhilarating, but Boyle’s brilliance lay amongst other things in understanding the nature of mental illness before it was certifiable but more serious than normally treatable.
Armed with contempt from the establishment she undertook pioneering work in this field on poor traumatised people. Mabel her partner moved away to Glasgow to (very unexpectedly) adopt, in 1908, and both served with distinction in war zones. Bignell brings the right air of sharply quizzical compassion, period RP and an amused scorn for Havelock Ellis’s bifurcation of gay women into two camps as it were. She’s non-binary, refuses to be categorized. There’s news for her too. Chittenden’s attention has let the right amount of detail seep through, and of course she might overshadow the other characters, though there’s checks and one or two dramatic narrations to ensure that doesn’t happen. There’s a denouement too.
A blue plaque is being organised and there’s no doubt Chittenden has intensively researched this subject: Bignell makes sure her character’s etched far more than a 70-minute play ensemble play might suggest. There’s a ‘muddle-tongued’ young woman Mereille, who links us to the past. Bignell plays the ukelele in the ensemble. Together with Dot from 1950, Bignell’s Helen character sings the lyrically memorable ‘Falling Rain’, The song attached to her alone ‘Go Well’ is heart-rending and heart-easing at the same time, and comes near the end. Its Celtic lilt seems somehow appropriate, a quiet lament with its distinct folk inflection heightened by a flute. ‘Of all the memories that come to mind/there’s none so sweet and free/as my lover and I sat side by side/just quiet in our own company.’
Moorey’s Meg from the 1920s, a working-class Suffragette in full green and white regalia recounts her heritage and we find something remarkable that she holds back till the end, her family circumstances. Her development only emerges half-way through but she holds a rally at the end, and is more prominent in the second half. Moorey has an appealing truth and is another fine singer. Her ‘Mother’ relating what in fact befell her mother is both a requiem and a sweet-toned call to the future.
That’s true too for Sutton’s 1950s Dot, in green working clothes and turban, though she’s prominent from the start, fades and re-emerges. Hers is the tragic true relating of a smallpox epidemic which killed seven people and features the laundry in 1950. You’d expect Sutton to be consummate if you know the south-east scene, and she is here. Sutton’s vocal clarity raised to clarion defiance is shadowed as well as thrilling, stunned as well as stentorian. Dot’s own heart-breaking relation is the most dramatic story, but also lends her the most poignant sotto voce fade-out as she relates an aftermath and some redemptive notes. Sutton plays the ukelele and keyboards in ensemble singing.
Though early and reprised ‘Smallpox’ is one of the most rousing memorable numbers with its ‘yah-yah-yah’ contemptuous refrain, and its scabrously brilliant effect of diminuendo with the line plummeting or slithering down the chromatic scale deliberately out of tune: an act of defiance. Sutton has a second number of very different nature in ‘Beside Me’ after devastating losses. Chittenden too brings out another disabled offstage character, not from birth this time but Smallpox, Barbara, who’s blinded. Still the laundry’s days are possibly numbered. There’s neat linguistic details like ‘the all-clear’ on Smallpox recalling the air raids of a decade previously, still in parlance ‘It’s a grey short noisy town/where the tourist children squeal/and at half a cut/the gulls wheel round/like horses on a carousel’ is another lyrical hit. Like Helen’s song there’s a Celtic lilt to it.
Samuel’s 1975 Ruby is simpler tale, starting later of a young woman fleeing horrific sexual abuse and worse from her London partner, hitching from a kindly lorry-driver and reaching one of the first refuges of its kind, with a young sassy blonde helper Chloe who knows exactly when to open and shut a door. It’s a blunt tale containing a thrillingly disturbed chase scene after the abuser somehow finds out. There’s now a coda. Samuel, also an outstanding flautist adding such colour to the instrumental line-up, is also superbly clear, poised as an actor, with a burnished singing voice, particularly in the edgily shaded, twangy instrumentalised and utterly memorable ‘Ruby’s Song’ with its dark pull of terror: ‘I daren’t make a sound/I can’t risk the mist coming down/I can’t risk another night underground’ A real debut and a name to watch.
Cryer’s 1995 Juliet seems like a commentator at first, too sassy to convey anything but subtext; again, at first. She relates too a period most of us remember, with a wickedly self-lacerating sense of humour: the latte with a figure dripped across the top to look like ovaries, the first worries over HRT ‘The walls’ damp… the rain makes sure everything’s wet, though again…’ Cryer sings ‘Gravity’ with its particularly witty lyrics, a post-activist post-everything elegy for the brightness Juliet’s generation hoped to bring, at least twice. ‘Will I wear this autumn green or brown/is gravity grounding me or just pulling me down?’
Sassy, modern though 25 years ago (Sarah Teasdale’s release, and the O J Simpson trial make this specific), Juliet’s story of betrayal is more oblique, channelled through contemporary concerns till we get the nub of Juliet’s tale. And then the miraculous rousing memory of ‘Greenham’ ‘making common cause on this common ground’ which might have been the moment to close the first half. It’s one of the finest songs, rousing, shouty, defiant, gloriously in your face.
And that kick of the future, the young woman whose googling in 2021 or shortly after has pulled this skein of accidie and communal identification into being. And exactly 70 years after the Smallpox outbreak we’re back with Covid, a horribly neat parallel no-one looked for.
The storyline’s been altered as a consequence. Ray’s appealingly wearied, blanched-out Tasha brings us full circle too. Mainly gay she collided with a very sweet man and now finds herself attending ante-natals. She’s just buried her mother and you immediately wonder which of the two previous period speakers it might be, if at all. There’s a musical clue. ‘Hard to Find’ which like several songs is repeated is a paean to lost feeling, of failed connections and a desire to spool back to what her mother pooled together (I wonder if she’s the literally unsung compiler, and there are candidates though the chronological fit isn’t quite right for the obvious one).
There’s a sense of this as interleaved static history, the dynamic links between certain characters subtly done. It builds emotionally but necessarily doesn’t shuttle back and forth to a climax. It’s not what Chittenden – in her themes of history changing one and life-to-death narratives – is about. The ensemble ‘Brave New Dawn’ though started by Meg is a collective of all those starts, all those differences each generation made.
This is mostly already classic, a leap forward from its last award-winning incarnation. Two not ideally clear monologues on the first night can’t shroud the quite obvious birth of a masterwork. I’ve not heard such memorable songs outside classic musicals. Which is to say I’ve never heard a new musical come up to this one.
Clean: The Musical is a true homage to the women it celebrates and as the torch song says ‘to mothers, and daughters and sisters and friends’. And here too the melding of music and surprise, the delight in discovery makes this a marvellously haunted ground.
Chittenden has made far fuller use of Scardanelli’s music and the result is rapt and heartwarming, with the mix of lyric tang and rousing defiance relished by the cast. In 2019 I wrote ‘One of the finest ensemble pieces in the Fringe. Or Festival.’ No. I’m glad a seasoned West End reviewer used the same words as I did, but that’s not the point. We both said simultaneously: ‘This should be in the West End.’