FringeReview UK 2018
Jesse Fox plays all parts in Ben Pacey’s blue-flecked bare-boarded backdrop. Ella Walestrom’s lighting and occasional voice-overs, evokes everything from lakes and pop-concerts to English garden sheds and wisps of tomorrow’s stripped world. Jemima James’ direction moves the action cleanly between epochs. Fuel’s production has delivered Pearson’s world. Till April 20th, ending in the Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle.
This Restless State begs neat questions on a pun in Danielle Pearson’s absorbing meditation on diaspora and dystopia with three timelines.
First, there’s an internalised search, referenced by (yes!) David Hasselhoff’s song Looking for Freedom that threads its way through sixty-three years on a chunky 1980s cassette. And then there’s the State of Europe, which survives in some form at least till 2052, where Italy’s participating in a Europe-wide referendum on one-child policy, unable to cope with the influx of refugees from climate change. Just as there was a referendum before the core London 2018 narrative; and that noisier one with sledgehammers in 1989’s Berlin.
It’s all enacted by Jesse Fox in Ben Pacey’s blue-flecked bare-boarded backdrop, Ella Walestrom’s lighting and occasional voice-overs, evoking everything from lakes and pop-concerts to English garden sheds and wisps of tomorrow’s stripped world. Jemima James’ direction moves the action as cleanly between epochs as Fox bleaches or blokes his voice; two-thirds of the time he’s two different women, over sixty years apart. Fuel’s production has delivered Pearson’s world handsomely, it’s not a luxury-appointed one visually, moving restlessly as it were between time and space zones. But there’s miking up and a microphone, and numerous sonics.
Pearson’s recently emerged from the Royal Court programme as Writer in Residence at the Watermill, as well as Criterion New Writing and – significantly – the EU Collective Plays! Competition. Though under thirty she’s already written eight previous plays so you’d expect a distinctiveness. It emerges here in quicksilver shifts and a desire to compress atmosphere in a small compass. Pearson seems to pare down to essences (a bit like Pacey’s set), and the cultural baggage you’d expect, including sci-fi accretions, is missing in this sixty minute odyssey.
Fox anchors 2018 as (almost) himself, who after an engaging preamble with the audience introduces Jesse, a struggling actor whose potential girlfriend and latest audition have both turned him down for someone else. He’s been the face of milkshakes in 2014, and in Midsomer Murders appeared where a famous actor was crushed to death by a giant cheese; it killed him off he feels. In one section Jesse explodes with rage when an unelected fascist politician is allowed airtime. Pearson knows her London audience, though this production’s touring.
Certainly these familiar details get the most laughs where the flanking narratives evoke the melancholy of departure and bleached options. Jesse decides to flee the leaking near-squat in London and head for his parents who have an announcement of their own about the house they’ve lived in since 1979. He needs to make a decision on his future.
In 1989 Margot, trapped in a loveless marriage with a decent man chosen by her Georgian-born mother, now dying, is given a ticket to a Hasselhoff concert just as the Wall comes down. Will it go back up? Must she seize this moment? There’s some touching scenes including an evocative one where her intended husband grabs frankfurters after they’ve gone swimming and proposes: a fragile affection that doesn’t really survive.
By 2052 Galina, daughter of emigrants herself, meditates on her partner Matteo and his daughter: Matteo has a child, but she’ll be denied one of her own if this referendum goes for population control. Like the 1980 one-child policy which China ended in 2015. In this sense it might seem a wonky anachronism, recalling how an ageing population can’t always be served by newly-arriving younger emigrants. There’s been a war, and Galina passes the rubble of the Trevi Fountain that was still in its pomp when her parents arrived from abroad. It evokes a flicker of melancholy, and it might survive a pause. These are telling details; a few more would have been welcome. Galina ends though at the voting booth, though it can hardly be a knife-edge decision.
By now you’ll have guessed these narratives are linked, with an underlying solicitude for a Europe united by civilised and harmonious living riven by referenda and resurrected ghoulish nationalisms.
Pearson can engage with jokey pungent narrative, getting neatly inside Jesse. Margot and Galina are more spectrally but more evocatively rendered. You want to know more, and perhaps this show could have stretched to seventy-five minutes, and we’d find out. In particular Galina’s world, which doesn’t need to be physically so much as emotionally detailed, needs room to breathe. As a Fringe play it would always find hour slots but it’s not a fringe thing. Certainly seventy-five minute spaces exist for such a prestigious range of small theatres as This Restless State’s touring too, ending in Newcastle. Whether the jokes will travel is another matter; but Pearson’s shrewd enough to indulge blokey warmth rather than any invective (well bar one unloved figure for theatre-going audiences).
Jesse’s father’s voice, something nicer in the woodshed, is certainly wise, and beautifully delivered with neat hesitancy: but as pre-recorded it’s rather intrusive on the aural texture Fox builds up. Fox does every other voice, including two young women, and this other male voice isn’t necessary. It makes Fox’s one-man efforts seem inadequate to the material, which they’re certainly not. He rivets attention effortlessly. Other voice-overs don’t bother – hubbub’s fine though individually-strayed women’s voices too jar a little. But the Sage in the Woodshed should definitely go.
If it comes near you – visit the website – do try and see this pungently-paced meditation on upheaval. It’d be good to see Pearson expand and ground this – as well as more of her plays. This Restless State breathes across its zones as a play with real potential that simply needs a little more daring, a little less peeling back. We don’t need a map of dystopia, but like the title, we need more routes to these psychologically restless states. Europe’s diaspora is us.