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Brighton Fringe 2024

Low Down


So just who is theatre FOR ?


Is it for the benefit of the actors and producers of a production?, or is it something that should enhance the general public’s life, and be easily accessible to them?


Few people thought more about this than Adrian Bunting.  “Theatre’s not film,” he said. “I want the audience to be part of the show.”    And an important part of this philosophy was the Brighton Open Air  Theatre – Bunting’s legacy project, which he conceived and kick-started shortly before his tragically early death aged 47.


That was in 2013, and the 400 seat horseshoe-shaped space has been open for nine years now, providing Brighton audiences with the opportunity to relax in the (hopefully) sunny alfresco setting and enjoy great theatre.



Or maybe not …


What if people considered that the ticket prices were too high – what would they do about it?     


It was a gloriously sunny afternoon at B.O.A.T. as we started to watch the preparations for a production of ‘Macbeth’.  On stage it’s 1809, and the actors’ costumes were suitably extravagant – no 20th century minimalism here …


George Cooke (Leigh Ward) and Sarah Siddons (Amy Brangwyn) are members of John Kemble’s acting company.  Kemble is Siddons’ brother – an actor-manager of the old school: completely self-assured and oblivious to anyone else’s opinion.  Samuel Masters played Kemble as an absolute stickler for his personal idea of Shakespeare’s pronunciation – he’s convinced that The Bard wouldn’t pronounce a “ch”as a “k”, so he gives us “arCHives” and “aCHe” …   Hysterical – a glorious running gag, accompanied by totally over-the-top physical gestures and ‘Actorly’ facial expressions as he delivered a line.


Kemble demonstrates the same single-mindedness in his business dealings, too.  His theatre was completely destroyed, burnt down in a catastrophic fire, and he was potentially ruined as he’d decided to save money by not insuring the building or its contents.   Luckily, though; Kemble had enough connections to achieve a substantial loan from the Duke of Northumberland, to enable him to rebuild.


Rebuild better, in fact.   Kemble and his sister Sarah built the new Covent Garden Theatre as a stunning palace – there were panels in vivid red and black depicting the fire at the rear of the B.O.A.T. stage, and these were now covered over with beautiful gold and silvery-white hangings.  The place had luxurious private boxes for the rich, and a substantial Pit area where the working-class customers could stand.


But … Kemble also raised the prices.


And the people didn’t like it.  They didn’t like it AT ALL.


Kemble had only increased the Pit prices by sixpence (although sixpence was worth a lot more in 1809 than today), but the poorer patrons demanded that the old prices be reinstated.   Kemble refused, and it looked like that would be the end of the matter.


But then, as so often happens, a firebrand stepped forward.  Henry Clifford was a lawyer, an ‘Attorney-at-Law’, and he managed to articulate the general discontent and focus people’s demands for ‘OLD PRICES’.   Michael Grant started shouting Clifford’s protest from the top row of the B.O.A.T. seating, and at first I thought he was simply another audience member.  But then he stepped onto the stage to confront Kemble directly.   He made me think of Maximileon Robespierre – another lawyer – who led the popular protests against injustice that culminated in the French Revolution … only twenty years before.


And here’s where Adrian Bunting’s genius comes in.  We, the audience, BECAME the protesters.   Michael Grant shouted his demands and we took them up.  But there are two sides to every question, and another audience member came on to the stage – to take Kembell’s side and make the argument that the price increases were reasonable and necessary.   Tahsina Choudrey as Mary Austin was dressed, like Michael Grant, in modern clothing, and the pair made a surreal contrast with the nineteenth century actors.


Even more surreal, to this reviewer (and remembering French Revolutionary politics) was that the LEFT side of the B.O.A.T. audience sided with the protests, while the RIGHT side largely joined with Tahsina Choudrey’s character in supporting Kembell.   Director Tess Gill hadn’t arranged this, or briefed us – it just seemed to happen by itself, though the theatre volunteers came round and gave us badges and placards that we could use to make our allegiance visually as well as vocally obvious.


A marvellous experience – one I won’t forget for ages – and a tribute to Bunting’s vision of audience involvement.


So ‘Kemble’s Riot’ is meta-theatre, completely breaking down the ‘fourth wall’ – (though at the horse-shoe shaped B.O.A.T. it’s three walls that are broken) – but it’s also a very political piece.   What – and who – is theatre for?


I haven’t mentioned Rosa Alempour so far.  She played Dorothy Jordan: a younger member of Kembell’s company, and a rival actress to the older Sarah Siddons.  Both women were gorgeously dressed, but there were sparks of tension and jealousy between the characters.   The two are united in support of the manager’s commercial stance, though – “Without profit, there’s no theatre.” 


The protests went on for sixty-six nights – shouts and bellows in the theatre, and protestors besieging Kembell’s home.  Kembell is determined to ignore them, but as Siddons pleads with him – “But they are the audience!”


Although the play is over ten years old – some features could have been written yesterday.  At one point Kemble employs heavies to bundle the protest leader into custody – and the evening after we saw the play I watched, on TV, heavily armed police attack  American students protesting against their universities’ involvement in the Gaza war.   


And (echoes of an earlier war) the Old Price protestors demand that the actresses give their support.   Dorothy Jordan resists – “You are calling for my professional suicide”  only to get the retort from Henry Clifford – “If you are not with us – you are against us!”


Eventually – Kemble gave in and returned his prices to their old level.   He wasn’t happy though, and Samuel Masters gave us his sneering judgment on his audience, calling them “maggots – a swarm of flies”.   He thinks that he and his Company are the producers of ‘culture’, and that the public must pay whatever he chooses, in order to consume it.      


But the protestors saw ‘entertainment’ as a public right – not something to be in the control of the theatre proprietors.   Two hundred years later, and in a time of decreased funding for many public amenities, these questions are more and more relevant.   


Brighton Little Theatre have taken on a big political issue with this production, and they’ve done it in keeping with the writer’s vision of breaking down the division between audience and players.      Adrian Bunting would have been proud of them.