FringeReview UK 2021
Written by George Bailey and directed at The Lion and Unicorn by Lucy Betts, who also designs Sound and lighting.Set design by ChewBoyProductions. Till July 24th.
A pre-set that lasts the whole show? Improv? James Corden rivals Tim Crouch in his An Oak Tree mode (a script Hal Darling as Sans must read from) whilst gesturing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – coin-flipping throughout – with outtakes from a gangster Waiting for Godot as Moins (pronounced in the French way, Sans) and Sans (in the French way Moins?) move…. OK, someone without and someone with even less. And it’s lessness flipping the coins. Sometimes the audience are asked to shout back a choice.
Tethered across a barren-lit landscape of balloons and a sound-deck belting out From Me to You, a late (Op 55) Chopin Nocturne and evocatively, thinks Darling-contemplating-Sans, Vaughan Williams’ A Lark Ascending. All that desolate lighting, it’s so, well desolate. Not that Moins will have any of it. Sans is just the actor, even when reminding Bailey of the comparative states of their hair as they don party hats (did I mention that? No). So George Bailey says and Sans breaks his fifth wall too.
And anyway aren’t they being watched? Aren’t they being rescued? Hasn’t the prophetic printer told them so? Aren’t they excited, a bit, a lot? Still it’s not the first time and might it be the last glimmer of hope? They messages might lie but what if they stop coming at all? As Bailey and Darling play George and Hal playing Moins and Sans
So two men chat as an audience sits, disagree; more than pre-set, then bow like wrestlers in a tightly impressive choreographed routine with commedia-gesturing hands, then a rope with perfect two-metres-social-distancing, first imaginary then real. Not that it’s got anything actually to do with lockdown, and they stay tethered but keep tying and untying the knot. They’re a bit married creatively. Sans wants out. They both want out. But how can they actually leave? Don’t start pulling in both directions, you’ll end up as a cartoon out of Dr Doolittle.
George Bailey and Hal Darling, co-founders of ChewBoy Productions riot through Bailey’s Tethered (Darling’s a third-contributor, he tells London Theatre 1’s Q&A) which opens for a week at The Lion and Unicorn after the customary delays. It’s directed, lit and with sound by Lucy Betts, associated like Bailey with London Playwrights at the Lion and Unicorn, and who’s just directed an outstanding Watermill/Jermyn Street Production of Ade Morris’ Lone Flyer, about England-Australia solo pilot Amy Johnson, a magnificent, wholly different play. Apart from the scene-fluidity and improvisatory shifts of another two-hander, the two plays could hardly be more different and Betts is firmly a director to watch. The set’s by ChewBoy productions.
It comes after Bailey’s Camden Festival and tour-acclaimed Euan, featuring a royal Brexit bedbug that’s got lost. You might see an itch in Bailey’s work, scratching into a style. Old Vic Bristol-trained, with residencies as playmaker at Chichester Festival and now Oxford Playhouse, Bailey’s work head-butts the way physical theatre slapstick and commedia dell’arte survive a fatal dose of say Beckett. No. Say Beckett has a nightmare he’s acting in a Feydeau farce and slams a door accidentally into Antonin Artaud who’s having exactly the same nightmare and they argue over whose cruel brain it is anyway.
There’s no definable single influence beyond physical in Bailey, but he stabs its perennial underside: existential fright, oppression – however swerved, as with doomed royal flunkies in Euan. There’s a laughter-distorting panic here, original Pan sense but teetering on terror too. Perhaps terror of the blackout. The eternal actor’s twitch of non-existence.
Despite this Bailey’s work is structured, in his recurrent Brechtian announcements of scenes and arias. There really is a pre-set, a beginning, a middle and an end flagged up, and the logic here is plain. What you see structurally is what you get. It’s the narrative arc pulling tethered against the inevitable hour-long structure, like a wild set of variations on a passacaglia bass.
This lends Bailey a wild, go-for-broke permission to repeat, pull, scotch, scratch and rescore narrative points, a rehearsal space without in fact repeating any info without a jazzy swing, so there’s no point of boredom. There are pauses towards the end, a point where both characters face not being rescued, contemplate zero options.
Some of the guyed melancholia comes from the play-within-a-farce duo of Moins and Sans in different storm-lit lighting which is, however interrupted, the printed heart of the drama. If hopes are dupes, fears may be liars, said Arthur Hugh Clough back in 1848. But dupe yourself again, again in a swirl of hope, and keep on.
Bailey and Darling are consummate, their timings are – despite everything they do to pretend otherwise – immaculate. You can see that in their intros and outros. Betts has clearly contributed to shaping and the to-and-fro of fluidity, it’s one of her gifts too. They’re a formidable team.
Tethered is – despite pratfalls and flirting with (never allowing) farce – profound in the moments it lets faux-serious settle. Guying bleak doesn’t mean it’s not there. What can you avoid treading in a gift of silence? There’s questions that shouldn’t be answered, togetherness that shouldn’t be questioned too much and nagging hope that can drive you mad in its spin-cycle. A gem. Grab it while you can.