FringeReview UK 2018
A Southwark Playhouse revival directed by Rob Drummer in the Little Studio. Amelia Jane Hankin’s set (built by Robert Pierce) includes white crash barriers around three seated sides, with an amusement weave carpet lending an eerie verisimilitude to the whole theatre, with ice-cream booth, café slot-machine. Zoe Spurr’s lighting washes bright beach days and sudden nights round the space, and Father’s sound design pushes out the late 1990s. Till June 16th.
This Southwark Playhouse revival directed by Rob Drummer in the Little is enormously encouraging. It’s twenty years since Judy Upton’s Confidence burst in its exciting uninhibited way via Birmingham Rep, doing what it said in the title. It came after and alongside numerous Royal Court (three) National, Orange Tree and Paines Plough premieres – and awards.
Then Upton moved to Radio and TV (including a film version of one stage play) and the BBC. She’s recently focused on the stage again, though there’s a danger of Upton being seen as purely a nineties playwright, alongside say the very different Sarah Kane. And now being confused with Jane Upton, whose grainy realism in such plays as All the Little Lights isn’t far from say, Confidence.
This would be a great pity, and Confidence reminds us exactly the kind of theatrical writer Upton is and what we might hope for. There’s a faint echo of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too in the sassy Ella’s manipulating of various men including a much older one, and the dead-end prospects of teenagers. Formally though Upton’s pacier and plot-driven with neat reveals and surreal moments.
For 1998 it’s a gleefully explicit play and still is. Placing a young ambitious, confidence-trickster woman like a seaside Becky Sharp is refreshingly different. You want Ella to get away with her get-rich-quick and Confidence Trickster manual, and in many respects – it’s worth finding out to what extent she does.
Amelia Jane Hankin’s authentically tangy set (built by Robert Pierce) includes white crash barriers around three seated sides, with an amusement weave carpet back with flecks of violet, lemon yellow, and other primaries lending an eerie verisimilitude to the whole theatre. At one end of the Little from stage right the little ice-cream booth, the slightly seedy Confidence Café with counter and tables out front; and a back kitchen hinted behind. Far left there’s a slot machine and left of that a gesture to a hidden corner where characters dive out of sight. It’s terrific, becoming the character the five-strong cast navigate round.
Zoe Spurr’s lighting washes bright beach days and sudden nights round the space, and Father’s sound design pushes out the late 1990s. The play’s of its time; there’s mobile phones and CCTV (a plot point) but no need to alter details when it’s the perennial coming-of-age with several twists. Most of all we’re lifted to a dead-end resort which in twenty years hasn’t changed from Hastings, Eastbourne, in some ways Brighton where Upton’s based, or Weston Super Mare.
Confidence opens at a seaside pier where eighteen-year-old Ella’s bored with selling ice creams alongside sixteen-year-old Dean (Will Pattle), who occasionally pleasures her with a 99 sixty-nine-style in the booth. Pattle’s Dean builds from a gob-stunned anomie to a shocked moral universe of his own where the noisiest fail to overawe him.
Tanya Burr’s Ella though has scams afoot, playing with Dean’s elder brother Rhys Yates’ Ben, at twenty-three the bullying enforcer and drugs-runner with debts to heavier men than him. Ella’s for him, like his ex, a ‘top bird’; Upton’s repeated sleight-of-phrase litanises the reduction of women in this apparently male-dominated environment. Yates ripples of the stage, his mouthy aggression peculiarly susceptible to Ella’s quicker wits and infinite variety.
Ella’s set to change all that. Using sex as a ladder she enjoys it anyway (Dean for instance has nothing else to offer) and Burr making her stage debut well conveys the restless pout and push-bra confidence the title gives Ella. Burr in particular conveys Ella’s restlessness, her quick-change routine trying to keep her relationships with eventually three men (well two men and a boy) separate from each other. That’s not counting offstage Stefan ‘the perv’ as Dean uneasily calls him, waiting for her in London, dismissed for cross-dressing as a chef.
What Burr lacks in sassy articulation – perhaps only Yates of the younger actors manages that – she makes up for in attitude. Her YouTube fame aside, which has led to snobby comments, Burr has presence and simply needs a little more vocal coaching. I’m not sure what role Emski Alston plays here in Voice Placement, though for a young cast they’re impressively shore-slurred (I offer that as a Brighton resident).
Next door the strangely child-like Ruby Anna Crichlow tuts at all this, in he three years’ stint at the Confidence Café; but has entrusted a secret. Crichlow’s character – watchful, resentful and quietly triumphant despite all odds – is nicely rounded in a reading that mutes and raises decibels at just the right places. She’s a wholly believable downtrodden yet resilient person whose story one feels isn’t given enough oxygen.
In that booth’s fridge her hamster resides, frozen for burial at some suitable place (she’s also grieving the boss’s sacking of her friend Naomi for letting pubic hairs fall into someone’s tea; quite a feat). So she’s not going to snitch on them to the pier’s owner Edwin (‘Mr Bayliss’), Lace Akpojaro’s laid-back spiv with a hint of menace in his callipers from a mysterious accident. He flinches and twitches at something just out of reach. Akpojaro took over the part very recently and by now (four days after Press Night) has quietly settled into his part. Again understatement as a kind of contrast to Ella is key, and the sudden switchbacks at the end and neat reveals work particularly because the gear-changes are sudden and to some characters, shocking.
By this time Ella’s persuaded Edwin to give discounts to her both involving Dean and Ben, for an inflatable remote-controlled dolphin scam posing as the real thing. So real she never tells Ben who like the punters paying to see them in their hired boat, he thinks them real. The scene when the dolphins finally show a mind of their own is pure Carry-On. The scene when the frozen hamster miraculously shows it’s alive all along – and we do see a real hamster – is somewhere left-field of anything Carry-On could give us.
Edwin makes Ella site manager but – he has a plan. So has Ella. She’s persuaded Dean they’ll both go to Hollywood on a scam to make their fortunes, staling rubbish from the bins of the famous (it was really lucrative for those who knew how to do it). She’s persuaded Ben they’ll go to London. She’s realised that Edwin’s ailment is other than what he suggests. When Edwin’s plan collides with hers, Ella shows she’s not her father’s daughter for nothing. He’s no gangland boss, but an insurer.
Ella’s credo is last-minute but sums her up. ‘If you’re not interested in earning a new pair of Nikes by the end of the day… complete designer wardrobe by the end of the week.. all the beers you can drink… if you don’t want to meet Una Thurman…. then OK, you stay here, as King of the Slackers, that’s fine by me.’ The brand seduction, its supremacy over the college education Ella was offered with its slow professional returns, takes on a tragic delusion below the comedy. Upton’s created an elegy for a generation born into Thatcher’s Britain, where even sex is a brief and pleasurable barter. What’s love got to do with it?
The denouement and pay-offs are curiously satisfying though needed pointing up at one or two key lighting points as the text suggests in relation to Edwin. If you go, you’ll see why, and this is a must-see in reviving the theatrical profile of a fine dramatist for too long shrouded in the digital when the acoustic world is claiming her back. The pace has also quickened; an added snap between the characters is all that’s missing to make it an outstanding revival.