Brighton Fringe 2022
Written by Richard Crane. Cast – Grace Lovelass, Sophie Bloor, Richard Crane.
Directed and set-designed by Faynia Williams. Music by Milton Reame-James with Grace Lovelass, Design image and programme Andrew Kay, Costumes Ruth Goodall, Assistant Director Jacquie Roffe, Technical and Stage Manager John Buss. Later tours TBA.
Andrew Kay’s design for Cocky and the Tardigrades is now rightly up for a Gemini Award.
The title. Sixties pop group, Seventies-style play and Millennial topic? Welcome to Cocky and the Tardigrades, third in Richard Crane’s and director Faynia Williams’ Insect trilogy. Its theme of eco-threat reaches a climax and metaphoric swirl.
You’d guess Cocky’s a cockroach. A Tardigrade, that micro-insect making the roach mountainous, is weirder when you look closely. Being smart, Crane translating their talk for us, they let us know it. They’re here to teach us after all. Even if they think we’re ghosts.
Known as water-bears or moss-piglets (they resemble both), they’re the toughest thing on earth, survived outer space, volcanic explosions and – here – possibility of nuclear Armageddon without the help of Hellman’s Mayonnaise (pace Victoria Wood).
Here 300 million years before us, they’ll survive our blink by the same timeframe. They’re smug. But Cocky? Well, he’s almost as clever. And might survive alongside them. That image in H G Wells’ 1895 The Time Machine, the Traveller reaching the world’s dusk, crustacea the last life-form, seems prescient.
Exit the Queen (hello Ionesco) featured one of today’s performers: operatic mezzo Grace Lovelass took centre stage. Mozzz, featuring Crane himself, followed. He’s here standing in for an indisposed actor at short notice. Alongside Lovelass taking Tardigrade Tamburlaine and Sophie Bloor’s ditto Tinkerbell, there’s a triangular synergy different to Mozzz’s narrative – itself a lecture/life in a day, told in an hour.
Where Mozzz’s straight-through dramaturgy with eddies sashays info and comedy, Cocky circles its material, swoops, reprises itself. Metaphorically richer, it’s trickier to realise.
Lovelass and Bloor duet till half-way. Mesmerising in absorption of complex material, they’ve exuberant clarity. Where Lovelass sings sceptic, full of nuclear Armageddon, Bloor plays optimist, projects facts with a kinetic feel of living it.
Bloor’s the Green Tardigrade, full of ominous lecturettes. Lovelass edges discoveries and doubts with the play’s songs. Witty, effective, sung with authority.
It makes for a singular play. Think Seventies as Crane refuses cloaks of post-1980s realism. His tradition’s Footlights and despite his distinction since (including Residence at the National), a Crane play is playful, quixotic, stuffed with qualities; and here has, as Keats says, a palpable design on you.
That’s via songs, Ted Talks: two violet-and-white-clad actors (costumes Ruth Goodall) upside down in an insect preset. Thanks to Williams’ direction it’s tight, delivered on a platform with Andrew Kay’s projected image behind, his set classically simple props like a table Crane sprawls over, feigning sleep. There’s a witty pointilism in the use of music by another long-term collaborator, Milton Reame-James. A duologue: one exits, a haunting solo, finally a trio.
Perfectly formed and absolute
Nothing on earth can scare
The kindly, cuddly, cosy, cute
Li’l tardigrada water bear
Welcome to Crane’s world. Metaphor’s pursued with vigour. After a shock, Bloor’s Tinkerbell asks Tamburlaine if she feels cold. At first scientific she explains cold is ‘when… one is obliged to put clothes on.’ No, Godot won’t break out of Guildenstern. Absurdism circles outside the Absurd: points are made over dramatic freewheeling.
There’s plot-points. To Tamburlaine’s scepticism over a nuclear bang: ‘Oh for Cock’s sake’ ripostes more anarchic Tinkerbell. Cocky’s a forbidden word: ‘Just because he eats shit and stinks like a blocked toilet… doesn’t mean he wants to harm you.’ So eventually Cocky Crane apparates in hatted black leather.
Language is peppered with camp: ‘darling’, ‘Tinky Pinky/Tamby-Pamby’; the pair discuss any human piglet who’d slow climate catastrophe. Tamburlaine experienced a nuclear explosion in Japan. With stats.
And unexpected outfall: ‘as if they hated you for surviving.’ ‘Till I woke you with a kiss’ says Tinkerbell. ‘Tardigrades don’t kiss.’ ‘I was in love with you.’ There’s diversion on a swervy gender-fluid life too: male, female, or Tinkerbell’s ‘Then go fuck yourself’ to Tamburlaine’s ‘I will, I’m a hermaphrodite’. Self-realisation’s exhorted: be Tamburlaine: Marlowe’s eponymous play is quoted.
Crane and his actors nail factual on verbal farce. What Tardigrades do whilst asleep, drop in on meteorites, drop up in spacecraft freighted with a world library; something will survive.
Only whilst sleeping, so what’s the point? We’re meteor-showered with info; delivered in absorbent jokes. ‘A snigger. I know them. I’ve been here before.’ Ghosts. That’s us, Tamburlaine thinks. Or we’re zombies.
Crane develops this from the possibility of – as not even Tardigrades survive a 2000 mph moon-crash – Schrodinger’s gambit: being alive and dead at the same time. We’ve had Einstein, we’ve had quantum, and now we’re getting Tardigrade paranoia. ‘It’s their hissing… as weightless and witless they zig-zag shrieking into the infinity of space.’ Think I got that.
Lovelass and Bloor separate, duetting. There’s snappy short line dialogue throughout, alternating info blocks. When Tinkerbell lists Cocky’s God-like metaphors we’re whirligigged in Scarab myths from Ancient Egypt. Too much?
Crane arrives in iambic. Whilst the Cockroach can attempt hexameter feet, having six legs, Tardigrades must resort to eight, being octosyllabic. After reams of blank verse we get an admiring Tinkerbell/Cocky conflab – also blank verse – more octo-jokes, jokes with house lighting. Prose. Tamburlaine emerges singing. Another scene reverting to Cocky and Tinkerbell outlining Schrodinger’s Cat again and a revelation. Phew.
It’s that 1930s classic by Don Marquis Archy and Mehitabel, incarnations of a free-verse modernist poet and Cleopatra dropped into a roach and a cat… This tardy metaphor fuels the finale.
Bloor’s Tinkerbell dispatches her gallimaufry with point and wit; crystalline if overwhelming. There’s a Tango. At this point more theatre, less exposition is in order, though vivid dialogue ensues.
Parallel lines meeting, time bending forwards and back (yep, ancient Egypt) makes metaphysicians of this trio. It is too much!
There’s another Cocky blank-verse monologue (jumping on tables, gyrating), Tinkerbell reprises, introduces terrified Tamburlaine as finally all three trialogue. A sandstorm, not a nuclear blast? Whilst the Tardigrades admit each is right, the message for us ghosts is there’s still time.
Bloor and Lovelass are a dream duo; we’ll hear far more of them. Their handling of complex material, Lovleass singing too, is a delight to hold this tapestry taut; as Crane himself swaggers in a phenomenal performance at short notice.
Education and edification? When Theatre in Education extends its wings in another world Cocky has the power to enthral and excite here too. With such invention and speech there’s life here beyond the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe, or as Tardigrades might put it, the fringe of the world. Scientists too will love it.
Caveats? Difficult to suggest cuts. Cocky needs aerating with a bit more theatre, and/or some flood of invention needs staying in narrower channels. Either that or extending to 75 minutes with more tech to punctuate its bonkers brilliance, allowing text to breathe. It needs seeing twice. It is though an achievement to dazzle beyond Mozzz.
Cocky couldn’t have been premiered with two more stunning actors, and the author’s flawless stepping-in remains remarkable.