Brighton Fringe 2022
The Foundry Group’s new play crackles with sharp one-liners in the true story of Mansfield’s ‘Human Mole.’ Three actors play thirteen characters in this fast paced comedy about a bizarre record-breaking attempt, human frailty and the price of fame. Premiering at The Rialto Theatre for Brighton Fringe.
Photo by Nicholas Quirke
In 1968 ex-nun and motorcyclist Emma Smith broke the “Guinness Book of” record for being buried alive; 101 days underground in a Skegness fairground. Exactly what drove her to do this is left unearthed in Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon’s hugely entertaining three-hander Underdogs.
Instead the focus is on Emma’s son Geoffrey, who decades later decides to honour his mother’s memory and regain the record from an American who notched up another 40 days.
What starts out as broad comedy, in even broader Mansfield dialect with pub banter “Raight yoth. Can I get you oat?” and discussion of how to bury someone in a pub garden, and why, is subtly layered with universal themes of love and loss.
As with the Foundry Group’s earlier plays, Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks and Those Magnificent Men, the shoddy morals and devious practices of news media has a profound impact on the real life characters being portrayed. Here it’s Geoffrey, in a warm and heartfelt performance by Murray Simon, who is hounded by the press but doesn’t have the skin tough enough to bear it. He’s a troubled soul, unable to hold a relationship or a job, distanced from his kids, still coming to terms with his mother’s death.
Whether working all this through by being buried in an eight foot box is a good idea is a question for landlord Spike, who sees a money-making opportunity in the stunt asking “Are you up to it? I mean, I’ll be putting my business on line here, Geoff. If you’re down theer ten minutes and have to come out I’m going to look a raight twat.” Duncan Henderson’s Spike commands the stage; a beady-eyed chancer who narrates direct to the audience, determined to put Mansfield on the map with international press coverage at Geoff’s expense.
Emma Wingrove, formidable as landlady Pearl, shows her comedy chops across six female roles, including spirited girlfriend Keri who dumps the philandering Geoff. Years later, in real life dear reader, she marries him.
Clever switches of decor on Duncan Henderson’s good-looking set (built by Frank France) serve as scene changes and keep the story rattling along; the underground peephole is especially effective, if perhaps a challenge for some sightlines. Brian Mitchell directs with his customary skill at moving people around a small space harmoniously and in getting the most out of the many very funny lines. Some were a bit too quick to catch on opening night and if you didn’t grow up in Mansfield, unlike Brian and Joseph, you might need to tune your ears in for a while.
Will Underdogs do for Mansfield what John Godber has done for Hull, or Barry Rutter for Halifax? Or will it remain one of the country’s underdogs? As Spike tells us “since they closed all pits there’s not really much happening round here. But I won’t dwell on that – this in’t that sort o’ play. We’re not after a grant.”
And yet…drama that is firmly rooted in place and community, that celebrates working class culture and difference is exactly what the government and its arts funding facility want to support.
So come on Ashfield Chad “News you can trust since 1952” and Ben Bradley MP for Mansfield, a levelling up Tory, get behind your lads! Audiences definitely will be.