Reviews 2014

All these reviews are listed in order.  Just scroll down to find them. – A Farewell To Arms / Duwayne / Goldifox / A Still Life / Smoking Ban / The Rain That Washes / Paddy On Parade / Love Sick / See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil / Albert Einstein – Relativitively Speaking / The Girl and The Goat / Sister / TIPS / Beauty’s Legacy / Fragments of a Fallen City / Our Dancing Feet / To The Green Fields Beyond / For The Trumpets Shall Sound.

A Farewell To Arms

‘A Farewell To Arms’ is Hemingway’s novel about his experiences as an ambulance driver taking part in Italy’s fighting against the Austrians near the end of the First World war. It’s also the story of his character’s (though also his own) doomed love affair with an English nurse, Catherine Barclay – she became pregnant but then died in childbirth, along with the baby – that mirrors the wider tragedy and loss of the Great War itself.

Hemingway’s prose style is distinctive – short (ish) sentences stuffed with vivid detail. – ‘In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.’

And later – ‘There were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain and the trucks splashed mud on the road and the troops were muddy and wet in their capes, their rifles were wet and under their capes the two leather cartridge boxes on the front of the belts, gray leather boxes heavy with the packs of clips of thin, long 6.5mm cartridges, bulged forward under the capes so that the men, passing on the road, marched as though they were six months gone with child.’

So how do you turn that kind of book into a piece of theatre? How do you bring those powerfully descriptive passages on to a nine metre wide stage?

imitating the dog have chosen to do the story as a film. When we entered the auditorium at The Old Market we were faced with what seemed to be an abandoned hospital ward, a big room in a rather classical looking building with columns and large windows, that might have been a country house, but had then been used as a hospital and subsequently abandoned. All in pale shades of grey, with white sheets on the two hospital beds and a couple of medical screens, one overturned across one of the beds. There was a soundtrack of Italian opera playing as we waited for the start.

Suddenly the brickwork was broken through, and a group of people in modern dress crawled into the space, obviously the first visitors for a long time, peering around the ward, setting the hospital screen upright and preparing a pair of video cameras on moveable tripods.

They’re a film crew – they have lights and costumes ready for the actors among them, and very quickly the actor who plays Hemingway (who is called Frederic Henry in the book) starts speaking the first lines of the text – those lines I’ve quoted at the start of this review.

Obviously, in ‘A Farewell To Arms’ Hemingway is writing those passages to us, the readers, as a Narrator, not addressing them to another character in the novel. And so here in the play, Frederic Henry talks direct to camera, not facing the audience at all, and we see the video image of his face projected up large onto the pale grey hospital wall behind him. In the video, of course, we see his face full-on.

At the same time as Frederic is speaking, his printed words are projected onto the top of the wall as surtitles, so we are able to read Hemingway’s text as the actor is speaking it. Sometimes the printed text breaks up – pages, lines, individual words dissolve into letters and float away across the pale-grey set. It’s as though they have brought the book to life.

In some ways it was better than reading the book. Frederic Henry shares his billet with his Italian military comrades – Rinaldi the surgeon, a priest and the Major of his medical unit. All these characters spoke a very realistic-sounding Italian, so we got the authentic feel of the language, while retaining the English meaning of the dialogue through the surtitles.

Doing the story as a film being shot in a hospital ward is a clever idea. Using just the hospital furniture avoids the usual theatrical need for different location sets – we as the audience have to create the settings for ourselves in our own imagination. Like in children’s games (that bed is an ambulance, and now it’s the wall of a trench). Actually, of course, creating the scene in our own heads is exactly what we do when we read the book.

Frederic and Catherine remain in character throughout, but the other four ‘film crew’ swap roles between being characters from the story, technicians moving lights and operating the cameras, or taking over the narration and sometimes working together as a ‘chorus’ to vocalise Frederick’s inner thoughts or contradictions. They do the costume changes on-stage too, so nothing is hidden from the audience.

This technique sometimes works very well indeed. In one section Frederic is driving with one of his sergeants near the front line, while Catherine waits and worries, looking out of the window back at the hospital where she works. We watch the two men talking, sitting on the bed which has become an ambulance, swaying and bouncing while as the vehicle hits potholes in the track – but there’s a camera on Catherine too, as she sits unmoving, staring at the glass. She does nothing, just sits, and we see her projection on the wall so it’s impossible to ignore her presence in Frederic’s thoughts.

The large video projections make special effects easy, allowing maps to scroll across the walls of the set, giving the audience a sense of the movements around the battle front, and of the distances travelled by the army when it’s retreating. It’s during this sequence, when Frederic shoots one of the soldiers under his command for running away, that great splashes of video gore drenched the wall, showing the violence far more effectively than stage blood could possibly have done.

And the effects can be subtle, too. In a later scene, after Frederick has deserted from the army and the lovers have escaped to Switzerland, he talks about how comfortable their life is now, while behind the couple the windows carry video images of soldiers struggling through the snow and ice.

The script uses only Hemingway’s words, and in the passages performed, they are used word-for-word. It’s abridged from the book, but it’s been done sensitively, so that only repetitions or minor events are removed, and the essential characters in the book are left intact.

So does it work? Technically it’s a brilliant conception, but perhaps the technology detracted from the acting. The actors seemed to spend too much time talking to camera, and were not projecting enough emotional intensity to the audience. Several audience members commented on this later. Personally, I was unable to engage fully with either Frederic or Catherine as people, I always had the feeling that they were reading from a script. This may be partly because my eye kept being drawn to the surtitles, so I was often reading the lines along with the actors.

There’s a slight delay in the video image, leaving maybe a half second gap between hearing the voice and seeing the actor’s lips move. They weren’t trying to hide the fact that it was a video projection. An interesting phenomenon, reminding us that this is a construct – not reality. All the actors wore small head microphones, making the dialogue very clear, and as ‘crew’ they constantly moved the camera positions and adjusted lights to give us the video shot that they wanted.

There was a discussion after the performance, where one audience member described the production as ‘Brechtian’, and I agree – imitating the dog have worked hard to eliminate that ‘fourth wall’; saying, in effect, “Here’s the story – it’s not reality, of course, it’s a performance; and you’re adult enough to deal with that.”

We are – and I for one was hugely impressed by the result. My only worry is that, while Hemingway’s novel brings his characters vividly alive, this production concentrated on giving life to the book itself, leaving his characters rather flat – as if they were somehow still trapped between the pages.

Posted on     Fringe  UK-wide


At first sight, ‘Duwayne’ is a play about the killing of a man, and a long quest to obtain justice.

Actually, it’s about the growth of another man, and the development of his character as he overcomes obstacles and setbacks that would defeat most of us. It’s almost a modern retelling of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’.

Gail Louw is fascinated by prejudice and racism. Her last play, ‘Blonde Poison’, examined the mindset of Stella Goldschlag, a ‘greifer’ – a Jewish woman who chose to betray fellow Jews to the Nazis. In ‘Duwayne’ she’s looking at anti-Black prejudice in British society, and in its legal institutions – the Police Service in particular.

Everyone’s heard of Stephen Lawrence – “Oh yes – the black teenager who was stabbed in South London years ago. Took the police a while to find the killers, but they eventually got a few convictions. They went to prison in the end”. In fact, it took nineteen years for Stephen Lawrence’s murderers to come to justice – nineteen years of obstruction and harassment by the Metropolitan Police of the only witness to the crime, Lawrence’s friend Duwayne Brooks.

We first see Duwayne kneeling by Stephen’s body as he lies bleeding to death on a South London street. Duwayne’s frantic – his friend’s life is ebbing away, but the policeman who arrives on the scene is more interested in getting names and facts down than in providing any form of medical first aid.

The production is directed by Tony Milner, and his starkly minimal set had harsh blue and white light washing down onto a three-sided acting space edged by grey steel crowd-control barriers and yellow-black warning tape. There were car hub caps lying around, and a large block of concrete, and the overall impression was urban and – gritty.

The stage at The Old Market is quite large, and defining a smaller space in the centre narrowed our field of view and focussed our attention very effectively. It also allowed the actors to go off just by passing the barriers, rather than having to run all the way to the wings.

Stephen Lawrence and Duwayne Brooks had been attacked by a gang of five or six white men while waiting at a bus stop. Duwayne is the only witness to the crime, yet when the police come to take his statement they are insistent that the assault must have been ‘provoked’ in some way. Lawrence and Brooks are black, of course, so -“Was it a gang fight?” and – “Was it you that started it?”. Probing. Questioning. Disbelieving. Duwayne is young, and distressed, and alone – and he’s black. At the end he retreats under a duvet – seeking escape from the pressure of the questioning, but also from his own guilt and remorse. Did he do enough to save his friend? Should he have stayed with him instead of running away?

Duwayne knows what a couple of his attackers look like, and it seems that the police have a good idea who they are, but throughout the original identity parade and the subsequent prosecution initiated by Stephen Lawrence‘s family, the police use every method available to undermine Duwayne’s credibility as a witness and to put obstructions in the way of his evidence. At first the teenager is almost crushed, but over the months – and years – he becomes more resilient to the pressures, more confident in himself as an individual, and so he slowly becomes more assertive and outspoken.

Adrian Decosta must be about thirty, but this very talented actor passed convincingly as eighteen in the early scenes. In subsequent sections his voice became firmer and slower and his posture straightened, as his character grew older and more experienced. Duwayne just won’t give it up and go away. He keeps demanding justice, and so he becomes an embarrassment and an irritant to the Metropolitan Police.

“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” states the Japanese proverb, and this uppity black man becomes a target for intimidation by the Police. His car is repeatedly broken into, he’s accused of sexual assaults, of burglary and a whole string of crimes, in an attempt to destroy his reputation and his will to carry on.

This is a very physical production, and the body language of the police radiated aggression as they screamed at him inches from his face, and at one point gave him a violent kicking. I knew it was only theatre, but I couldn’t help shuddering as the boots thudded into Duwayne’s body while he lay on the ground. Eerily, he ended up in the same pose as Stephen Lawrence’s body at the play’s beginning.

At one point he’s thrown into a police cell, the two officers swinging the steel crowd barriers across the space to trap Duwayne inside. Very simple, very visual – and very effective. Andy de Marquez was the white policeman, bearded and gruff, while David Ajao played the shorter, smoother black officer.

When these two are together they wear their white uniform shirts, but Ajao also comes on as the representative of the Black Police Federation, in full uniform tunic and cap; a black officer reassuring Duwayne that there’s no racist agenda in the investigation. Smooth and oily – “We’re the Police, Mr Brooks. You can trust us”

Gail Louw hasn’t made anything up in this piece – the facts are all available in the 1999 Macpherson Report (which spoke of ‘institutional racism’) and in Duwayne Brooks’ own book – but what she has done is use that material to create a very believable portrait of Duwayne himself, and his growth as a human being.

The man came to be greatly respected in his South London community, and in 2009 he was elected as a Councillor for the London Borough of Lewisham. It seems that he was influenced to enter public life by meeting Brian Paddick, once Deputy Assistant Commissioner and the only openly gay senior officer with the Met. Paddick himself knows a thing or two about overcoming prejudice, and recognised the leadership qualities in Duwayne. Paul Moriarty is a bit stockier than Paddick, but he has quite similar features and he produced a convincing portrait of the man. His firm handshake with Duwayne was the first bit of warmth that we’d seen in the whole play.

One small point. I can tell you that Paddick was played by Paul Moriarty because I asked him afterwards. While the programme had fulsome biographies of the four actors, it didn’t manage to indicate who played what role.

The facts are all on record – as I said above – but they aren’t widely enough known by the general public, so Gail Louw has done us a great service. This year especially, with the revelations about clandestine phone and internet surveillance by the security services, the old reassurance – “We’re the Police, Mr Brooks. You can trust us” – just isn’t good enough any more.

A powerful production. Most of us knew the basic facts of the case, but we saw them unfold in front of us with an intensity I had not expected. The harsh lighting and the stark staging took us right onto those run-down London streets, and the set’s design was so flexible that we were moved seamlessly into the confined space of an interview room, with two chairs facing each other – much too close for comfort.

A concrete block became a witness box in the Old Bailey scene, with an overhead spotlight picking out Duwayne’s head and shoulders as his evidence was torn apart, and he writhed like a crucified Christ in his own personal Calvary.

Above all, though, it’s Adrian Decosta ‘s anguished face that will remain in my memory. Duwane screaming at the policeman to please, please get his friend to hospital, eyes wide in fear and panic. Then later, after questioning, Duwayne retreating into his duvet, grimacing with gut-wrenching emotional pain as he relived the terror of the attack – and also the worst horror of all; that he had abandoned his friend to his fate.

It’s an important story, but it could have been told as a matter-of-fact recital of the events. Louw has done much more, though – she’s taken a set of legal facts and turned them into an emotional drama that was gripping and very intense. I cared, we all cared, about Duwayne Brooks. We shared his pain and later we were uplifted by his victory. He became real for us – what better justification is there for theatre?

Posted on   Brighton Fringe 2014


There were eighty or ninety of us in the theatre at Sallis Benney – about two thirds were children, excited at the prospect of a puppet show – and a third were their mums and dads who’d brought them. I had a sneaky feeling that they were actually just as excited as the little ones …

And they were little. They ranged in age from two to about ten, and when I saw the relatively small screen down at the front, I wondered if the show would manage to hold their attention. Andy Miller, the presenter, stood by the screen and explained that this was a fairy story about The Three Bears, and that all fairy stories begin the same way – “Once upon a time …”

The Bears’ cottage in the woods was a back-projection, and we saw them as shadows – Father Bear, Mummy Bear and a tiny Baby Bear – skipping across the screen. They left the house for a walk in the woods because their breakfast porridge was too hot, and Andy mentioned Goldilocks; mischievous and golden-haired. Although only two-dimensional, it was charming and beautifully done – but would it be enough?

Suddenly the screen went blank and a head punched through it. A couple more twists and tearing of the screen and we could see a little fox looking out at us. Andy jumped back. “Who are you?”

“I ‘eard you mention Goldifox”   The fox had a husky voice, the kind of urban Estuary English that made you think he’d spent too much of his life playing Pool.  Andy told him that ‘Goldilocks‘ was the name, “and you’re not golden at all, you’re sort of – fox coloured”. “No problem” said the fox, and he dived below the screen to reappear with a great gold medallion round his neck. It was an enormous golden dollar sign, and made him look like some kind of Gangsta rapper.

“My name’s Charlie” he told us.  Possibly also his drug of choice – though I hope that went over the heads of the little ones. A few more rips and tears, gripping the material with his mouth, and he’d completely destroyed the screen.   “I’m a very ‘elpful fox” he said winningly, “I’d like to ‘elp you tell the story – and we should call it Goldifox”

A word to the wise. If you’re going to perform a fairy story to a group of children, don’t ever enlist the help of an urban fox. Andy tried to tell the story of the Three Bears’ breakfast, but Charlie was keen to do it his way.   The end result was slapstick mayhem, with Andy getting a face full of custard pie porridge, and as soon as he’d cleaned that off he had cornflakes tipped all over him. And a second time, just as he’d brushed up the first lot – Charlie was very keen …

Then there were the sausages (which we all had to count) and a big Rat who stole them, and much, much more. We loved it – imagine Basil Brush meeting Mr Punch and you’ll get the general feel of the show. Charlie’s not posh like Basil, though – I suspect that he’d have tried to pick Mr Punch’s pocket!.

There was lots of audience involvement; the children calling out to alert Andy to something happening behind his back, like when the Rat kept eating the sausages.  At the end, Andy said that the Three Bears weren’t frightening enough, and that three of us should go out front and be bears.

For some inexplicable reason, Andy didn’t choose me (even though I’d have been perfect) but some little girl from the row in front.   I’ll get over it.   Finally there were three children out there in little brown bear suits with hoods – one with his hood worn like a huge cowl covering his face so he looked like a diminutive Obi-Wan Kenobi.   Unforgettable.

Beautifully expressive acting from Charlie – Sally Edwards let him be manic, and then she would make him roll onto his side and stare lovingly up at Andy. She was great with the children after the show, too – sitting with groups of them and letting them stroke Charlie while he looked from one child to the next.   Sally’s very talented – Charlie looked just as lifelike, close-up on her forearm and hand, as he had done before, leaning out from the puppet theatre during the show.

This was a beautiful production, not over-taxing for the children, but fast-moving and managing to engage all the different age-groups who went along. (Including the over-forties!).    The little ones, especially, were buzzing with excitement as they left – they’d enjoyed being able to see the puppets close up.  Wishworks really know how to engage with an audience – of any age.

Posted on   Brighton Fringe 2014

A Still Life

Are you reading this review?

That sounds like a stupid question, but really – are you reading this review? Can you be completely sure you’re not dreaming that you’re reading this review? Or having an hallucination that you’re reading this review? Just as I can’t be completely sure that I’m writing these words – I may be dreaming that I’m writing them – or I may be mentally disturbed and having the delusion that I’m writing a review …

‘A Still Life’ is a play about reality. Or what we perceive as reality. A woman wakes up on a settee in a hospital room, with no idea who she is or how she got there. Her memory is a blank slate. It seems that she’s some kind of patient, but the people who come in through the door behave in ways that are completely crazy. So are these people real? – in which case it’s a madhouse. Or are they hallucinations? – in which case the woman herself is delusional.

She has no sure way of knowing. She has only her mind to assess the situation with, and her mind may well be damaged. But we as audience have no way of knowing either – we see what the director chooses to show us, and we don’t know whether we’re being shown her (inner) reality or our (external) reality.

This way madness lies … but luckily ‘A Still Life’ is done as a brilliantly funny farce, which kept us gripped through a whole hour of mind-bending twists and turns of psychology and metaphysics. The show made my head spin, but it didn’t give me a headache – I was too busy laughing.

The clinic – for it seems the room is in a clinic – is run by Doctor Proctor. He’s as mad as ten Hatters, obsessed with his status as a medical pioneer – the man who defined ‘Proctor’s Syndrome’ and developed ‘Proctor’s Twelve Step Programme’. Ian Angus Wilkie, who must be in his fifties, played him completely manic; white coat unbuttoned, heavy spectacles glittering in the stage lights and his hair increasingly awry as he browbeats his patient, forcing her to accept his diagnosis that she’s delusional. He’s also burning with hatred (or envy) for Dr Tourette, (who of course is a damn sight more famous) and his Syndrome.

He has a perfect counterpart in Cardigan, who arrives to hero-worship Dr Proctor and work as an intern at the Clinic. He’s younger than the Doctor, with dark hair slicked back over his ears and he’s dressed in russet corduroy trousers and a little knitted top that his mother must have made for him. Michael Armstrong gave the character the social awkwardness and intensity that often defines the geek. A lack of any conception of personal space, too. He’s the kind of man who puts the ‘Eek!’ into ‘geek’.

These two ought to be enough for any mental patient to deal with; but drifting in and out of the room is – Serenity. Floaty floral dress over black leggings, and with long brown hair tumbling over her shoulders, Rachel Cohen made her a walking manifestation of New Age philosophy – body and arms twisting sinuously as if she’s a tree, while quoting from Khalil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ in a ecstatic voice.

In fact it was Serenity who alerted us to the Postmodern nature of this show – right at the start she’d come down through the audience to climb on stage and introduce herself directly, and then she finished with – “I’ll be seeing you later – or rather; you’ll be seeing me later”. There was no ‘fourth wall’ in this production.

The patient herself is Jude. She’s in pale blue pyjamas, with blonde hair tied back in a ponytail – and she’s fairly heavily pregnant. Rebecca Probyn played her initially as frightened and bewildered, and then increasingly assertive and argumentative when faced with the crazy obsessions of the Doctor and his staff. The only one who seemed to have any grip on reality was Ford, the hospital Orderly. Maybe that’s because his character is brought to life by Christophe Philipps, who directed the production. He wrote the play, too – so at least one of them understands what’s going on.

The Clinic staff are all convinced that Jude is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – that she’s suffered some trauma and she can’t remember anything because – “your subconscious mind has become detached from your conscious mind. Every morning when you awake you are like a clean slate”. Doctor Proctor prescribes another traumatic shock as a remedy. His idea of a traumatic shock is clearly insane – and quite unethical, Hippocrates would have a fit! – but he’s the doctor.

He quotes Descartes to Jude – “The only thing we can rely on absolutely, is our mind. Everything else is, or could be, a construct of our mind, completely illusory. It’s the only thing we can rely on absolutely” But Jude disagrees – after all, Descartes was a 17th century Classical philosopher, like Newton, while she herself is a 20th century woman, the century of Einstein‘s Relativity. “If all we can trust is our thoughts – and we can’t rely on them – then can we ever think in absolutes?”

Proctor’s clearly driven by his own ego and sense of power, as he shouts her down – “Rubbish! Some thoughts are absolute. We must be able to rely on some things – even if it’s only to have faith that others know what is best for us – for you

Others know what is best for us. How often we’ve heard that argument from people in positions of power …

There were probably too many repetitions of the basic ideas, and the play could do with some additional judicious trimming – it seems that it’s already been shortened from Christophe Philipps’ original text. Overall, though, the twists of logic and philosophy, and the underlying violence of Dr Proctor’s ego, kept the dialogue crackling. It felt like a Tom Stoppard play re-written by Joe Orton. Or maybe the other way round.

Finally it’s Ford the Orderly who comes up with an explanation of Jude’s condition that tied all the threads together. It occurred to me that maybe the Orderly was the Doctor all along. Calm at last, Jude settled back to sleep on the settee, seemingly well on the way to recovery.

Cured? … Perhaps. The stage at the close looked uncannily like the stage at the opening. Would Jude wake up tomorrow and the whole process begin again? Maybe this is how every day unfolds for her – starting with a clean slate …

Posted on   Brighton Fringe 2014

Smoking Ban

The Friends Meeting House must be one of the most unpromising venues in Brighton to put on a show. It’s a biggish space, slight echoes making it sound a bit hollow, and all the lighting has to come from the back, behind the audience, meaning that the performers can only be lit flatly from the front. To me, it always feels a bit – cold.

But none of that mattered with ‘Smoking Ban’. Kate Goodfellow dominated the space in this one-woman show, gripping our attention for an hour and a quarter and never letting go.

Goodfellow is actually Australian, but she put on a convincing American accent as Carol – Head of Health and Science at tobacco giant Anglo American Tobacco. “From my dress, you’d probably never guess that I’m a scientist” she says. Damn right – Carol was wearing a short dress so vividly red that it seared our retinas but drew our eyes irresistibly to focus on her bust, which was impressive.

Sex on legs, basically – perfectly fitting her role as a Company spokesman, seducing the Public. She was pumping up the benefits of the Anglo American brand, and reassuring the public that tobacco use was a rational and healthy lifestyle choice. She mentioned the possibility of it leading to some kind of infirmity – and then stopped the presentation with a jerk. The lights came up brighter and less blue, revealing that Carol had actually been trying out her conference speech at home, and now we watched her musing on the word to use in place of ‘infirmity’.

She settled on ‘condition’ – a far more reassuring term in the smoking context – and carried on with her presentation. Goodfellow is a very physical actress, her arm and hand movements emphasising each point and her powerfully persuasive voice really getting her message over as she moved back and forth across the stage. Scale is important in theatre, and I’d love to see this performance done in a smaller space, where I think it would be even more intense. Not that it mattered here, though – as I said at the start, she had us gripped.

Jonathan Brown has written this piece as a trenchant polemic against the evils of the tobacco industry, but as with so much of his work, the imagery works on a number of levels. Carol was trying to mislead her audience that ‘addiction to tobacco’ was not a real condition, and then she confessed to us that she hadn’t actually written the speech herself anyway – an old colleague had composed it for her – as she reached into her bra and removed some padding.  Falsehood piled on falsies …

Sex on legs. She has to fuck her boss, of course. Every Tuesday afternoon she had the odious Jerry pumping away. I’ve told you Goodfellow can do physical – in this section she alternated between Jerry, gripping at her (imaginary) hips while thrusting into her from behind, and Carol, jerking forward spasmodically while bent forward with her hands on the floor. A tour de force for any actress, but Goodfellow also had to switch between Carol’s American accent and Jerry’s upper-class English drawl. That scene alone was worth the price of admission.

The ban on smoking in public buildings applies universally of course, even to Anglo American Tobacco headquarters, and a lot of show is about how the company’s employees subvert the restriction – being a tobacco company, they assume that they are essentially above the law.  Jerry the MD is certainly going to smoke just wherever he wants – and he insists that all his staff smoke their full quota of cigarettes every week. The headquarters building has a Pocahontas Memorial Garden – you knew that Pocahontas was an Indian princess, of course, but did you know that she married a Virginian tobacco planter called John Rolfe, the first interracial marriage in North America?

It’s an interesting plot twist that the company staff revere the native American Pocahontas, but are prejudiced when they learn that Carol herself is a quarter Indian.  Her mother was half Pawnee, and she passed on a lot of her wisdom and folk-law to her daughter. Goodfellow plays the mother too, in yet another voice, dimly lit in a red light as she talks about Pawnee customs and their use of tobacco for ceremonial purposes.

Her mother impresses on Carol the importance of natural products, of using menstrual cloths – “to let the blood flow unhindered” instead of tampons. She is horrified that the European settlers took tobacco as a commercial product, for profit, when the native Pawnee used it as a ceremonial and religious sacrament. The Pawnee tribe are from Nebraska and the Great Plains, and their mythology allowed them to see themselves as ‘the children of the stars’.   Very New Age.   The author neglected to mention that they also practiced child sacrifice.

Carol gets pregnant (by Jerry – Ugh!)   Suddenly she has greater responsibilities than merely consuming her weekly quota of tobacco. She stops smoking, deviant behaviour seriously threatening her position within the company – these people make North Korea look liberal – and she spends a lot of time curled up in an enormous leather armchair to one side of the stage. In a long, powerful segment near the end, Goodfellow wrapped the chair’s woollen throw around her head and upper body, like a cloak with a cowl, and standing on the chair, looming tall over the audience, she became the Spirit of Tobacco.

This was beautifully and movingly done; Goodfellow’s voice becoming deeper and her delivery slower, to a background of drumming and chanting – the sound swelling and fading as she intoned the words – accusing and warning us. We have not had our lands stolen, we have not been herded into stinking reservations, we have not suffered the catastrophe of the Native Americans – but we believe that we are free, and this is our greatest disaster, to believe in our freedom in the face of the power of advertising, market forces and the multinational corporations.

Strong stuff, working on many levels. It’s a naïve and simplistic take on some complex issues – but then a lot of the potency of great myths and traditions is that they are naive and simplistic. Therein lies their charm – and their power. As always with a Jonathan Brown piece, we were left with a lot to think about. My fellow audience members were still animatedly discussing the meaning of what they’d seen as they walked off into the night. We’d also experienced a tremendously versatile performance by an immensely talented actress. Kate Goodfellow brought the material to life brilliantly – I shall watch out for her in future productions.

Posted on   Brighton Fringe 2014

The Rain That Washes

“The Revolution devours its children”

Those words were written by the Frenchman Jacques Mallet du Pan – as Robespierre, one of the original leaders of the French Revolution, was led to the guillotine after his faction lost out to a different group of revolutionaries. Former comrades can become bitter enemies.

‘The Rain That Washes’ is about children in the literal sense, too. Matthew and his friends Freeman and Good Leisure are young teenagers in White-ruled Rhodesia in the 1970s. It’s a one-man show, so we see all the characters through Matthew’s eyes, and he put on a policeman’s cap and a loud, sharp “Effrikaana” voice as he gave us an idea what Segregated life was like for a black person, and why the idea of ‘Freedom’ was so seductive.

” If you were to walk down the road to the train station, where it is forbidden for you to talk to any white woman – unless you know her, in which case you will address her as ‘Madam’.  Now if a policeman such as myself stops you, you will immediately provide me with your identity card. Seeing as you are not in her township, you will provide me with a letter from your employer, explaining what business you have to do in our area. When you get to the train station, you will board the BLACKS ONLY carriage ”

This is a very minimalist production, with just a large wooden trunk in the centre of the stage at The Marlborough, with a couple of suitcases stacked at the side. At the back there was an outline shape of Rhodesia, made up of a collage of pictures, posters and newspaper pages. As the play unfolded, Matthew used the two cases as props – now they were a bus seat, now a lectern to make a speech – but initially he piled them up, put a man’s soft hat on the top, and they became his Uncle.

I’ve always felt that theatre is the only really ‘grown-up’ medium. Film uses high technology and special effects to convince us we’re seeing reality – theatre simply gives us the cues and lets us create the scene inside our own heads. Chickenshed are very good at this, using the very basic staging alongside vivid lighting that drenched the space in green to give us the depths of a forest, or flashed white over stark blue backlights to create the panic and disorientation of a night-time security raid.

Powerful sound effects, too. This story is about a war of liberation, remember, a long and vicious guerrilla war; so we get hammered by the screaming roar of attacking fighter jets, and try to catch the crackly voices of rebel radio stations operating out of Angola or Botswana. Designers Yukiko Tsukamoto and Andrew Caddies took us back to 1970s Africa, and it felt – authentic.

Ashley Maynard looks to be in his thirties, with an incipient moustache and a slightly tubby physique that kept his shirt stretching apart between the buttons. This, and his constantly mobile face, allowed him to be a convincing teenager as he gave us very funny banter from the three boys as they headed south to Botswana to join the rebels. He’s seen Joshua Nkomo, the nationalist leader of ZAPU, speaking at a rally in Bulawayo, and when he meets him again in a rebel camp, awestruck and shy, Maynard did Nkomo’s rather breathless voice and laughter to become the man.

Matthew is sent to Angola, and later to Bulgaria to get a political education and military training. When he returns to Rhodesia it’s 1980, the war is over after a negotiated settlement, and there are elections for the new, majority-rule Zimbabwe.  Matthew and his Uncle are canvassing for Joshua Nkomo and ZAPU, but there are threats and intimidation from Robert Mugabe’s ZANU party.

“The Revolution devours its children”   Colonialism never cared about ‘the natives’, and when the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes drew up the borders of what he called ‘Rhodesia’ he managed to encompass two separate nations, the Ndebele tribe in Matabeleland in the south west, and the larger Shona tribe in the north. Mugabe’s Shona ZANU and Nkomo’s Ndebele ZAPU fought side by side to achieve liberation from white rule, but once in power the old tribal rivalries surfaced and Mugabe quickly usurped Nkomo, becoming the sole leader of Zimbabwe.

After friction between the two groups, and an insurgency among the Ndebele people, Robert Mugabe created an elite military unit, the Fifth Brigade, trained by North Korean instructors and answerable only to him. (Hitler’s paramilitary SS comes to mind). The Fifth Brigade acted with great brutality, crushing any opposition to Mugabe and reportedly killing up to twenty thousand civilians in Matabeleland. They referred to this operation as ‘Gukurahundi’ – ‘ The rain that washes away the chaff ‘, and the second half of the play deals with the horrors of this.

It’s become very fashionable to depict Robert Mugabe as a monster. I’m not an expert on Africa, and thankfully this isn’t the place to analyse politics, but it’s worth remembering the pressures the man is under. This was a war of liberation, and thousands of former freedom-fighters had been promised land under majority rule. These men were Mugabe’s supporters – they remained armed and needed to be kept on his side. Yet the majority of the best farming land remained in White hands (as late as 2006, 39% of farmland was held by just six thousand white farmers) who were constantly stirring up opposition to the government’s attempts at land redistribution. Similarly, the South African government, while it was still an apartheid regime, produced vast amounts of anti-Mugabe propaganda as well as carrying out destabilising acts of terrorism in Zimbabwe. I’m relieved that I don’t have to take sides – my job here is to tell you about the play.

“The Revolution devours its children”   Chickenshed have decided to tell this story from the viewpoint of an innocent. We see Matthew first as a young teenager, then later as slightly older, but he remains at the mercy of events outside his control or understanding. Like most of us, he’s buffeted and swept along by the tides of history.

Ashley Maynard put on a gold-trimmed peaked cap to become President Mugabe, speaking from a lectern (two cases, again) about the need to strike at ‘snakes – cobras’, and then he donned a red beret to become a Fifth Brigade soldier, brutally interrogating Matthew during a house-to-house sweep for Nkomo supporters. Maynard brought out the terror in the young man, alternating this with the swaggering sense of power of the soldier. Flashing lights from behind, blue top-lighting picking out the hunched figure crouching on the ground, and deafening sounds of fists or boots hammering on the door – it was a terrifying experience that will stay with me for months.

In the closing scene, Matthew is told about hooded prisoners being brutally thrown down an abandoned mine shaft. One of them is his old schoolteacher – his academic knowledge powerless against the forces that the revolution has unleashed – and in a last horror, Matthew is given a hat that was left abandoned at the mineshaft edge … his Uncle’s hat.

There’s a final masterstroke of theatre at the very end – but I won’t spoil it for you by giving it away. You’ll just have to see director Kieran Fay’s great production for yourselves. I recommend that you do – it’s very powerful as theatre, but it also reminds us of an ongoing tragedy for which we British are ultimately largely responsible. I was sitting next to an Australian theatre director, over for Brighton Fringe, and her response was – “That’s what Fringe should be about; theatre to grip you and make you think”.

Posted on   Brighton Fringe 2014

Paddy On Parade

“The past is another country – they do things differently there.”

I was reminded of that line from ‘The Go-Between’ all the time I was watching ‘Paddy On Parade’. L. P. Hartley published the book in 1953, looking back to events when he was a schoolboy in 1900. That’s a gap of fifty-three years – not that much longer than the forty-five years between 2014 and 1969, the year that Eddie Alford joined the Royal Air Force.

Eddie was a Catholic boy from Dublin, and after he dropped out of a University course his father drove him up to Belfast – part of the United Kingdom – and enrolled him in the RAF – “They’ll put some manners on you!”. It should have been obvious that Eddie’s talents lay in the Humanities – at sixteen, two years earlier than usual, he’d been the youngest in the country to be accepted for an Art course. But his father insisted he study Veterinary Science – “It was a family decision” – with the inevitable result.

Eddie Alford has written this autobiographical piece as a drama, putting himself into the story as ‘Tom’, but when Tom joins the British military as an Irishman, he picks up the inevitable nickname of ‘Paddy’. So from here on – Paddy it is …

‘Paddy On Parade’ is done as a series of scenes from Paddy’s career as a Navigational Instrument Mechanic in the RAF. This work involved servicing the avionics of military aircraft, and took Paddy to RAF bases around the world. Each scene was located by an image projected onto the wall behind the actors – a rather washed-out black and white print, obviously taken by an amateur, with the location printed on it. The first one read – ‘Guardroom. RAF base, UK 1969’

Paddy was played by Jack Kristiansen, a confident, engaging actor with a rather narrow but very mobile face and dark hair slicked back over his ears. He had traces of an incipient moustache, and a very infectious smile. Paddy was often running up against authority, but Kristiansen played him with an unshakeable confidence in his own intellectual capabilities. In this scene, he’s being shown round his barracks block and notices a sign pinned to the wall – NOLI CARBORUNDUM ILLEGITIMANTUS – which he manages to translate as ‘Don’t let the Bastards grind you down’.

The Aircraftswoman showing him round (with Paddy it always seemed to be women) is duly impressed – “Well Done! No-one else ever gets near it – not even the Officers”

The show could easily have become just an amusing series of anecdotes about military life, like Spike Milligan’s ‘Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall’, but Eddie Alford has managed to recreate the social and cultural world of almost fifty years ago, and it’s remarkable how different it feels.

Britain still had an Empire. The country was a Great Power, with a chain of military bases stretching from Gibraltar to Darwin, Australia. The Cold War was deadly serious, and squadrons of Vulcan bombers stood ready to deliver atomic bombs in retaliation for any Soviet aggression. In a briefing session, Paddy complains about the inadequacy of the anti-radiation suits that they would wear in the event of an attack, and is immediately slapped down by the Officer as ‘Bolshy’. (He’s the one who has to explain to the group that it means ‘Bolshevik’, no-one else understands)

There’s an unquestioned obedience to authority that’s hard to conceive of today. Going back to the Republic of Ireland on leave, Paddy is confronted by Irish Customs at Dublin. The Customs man has the power to confiscate contraceptives (and a wonderful line of euphemism) – “Do you have any Conduits?”; and to seize banned books like ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Fanny Hill’. In 1969 the Irish Republic still had an Index of banned literature, just like the Inquisition hundreds of years before.

There were race riots in sixties America, of course; and when he gets to Darwin, Paddy experiences Australia’s own form of apartheid. There’s a corrugated iron shack at the side of the bar he’s in, with a sign saying – NO WHITES – ABBOS ONLY. Paddy tries to explain to his host about the Aboriginal’s culture and their use of the land for ‘Dreamtime’, but the man isn’t having any of it – “Them Abbos, they just get pissed all the time, and go on walkabout”

An unthinking racial superiority, too. In Singapore, posted to another RAF base, they are all given strict orders not to eat the local Chinese street food, as it’s almost certain to be contaminated. And the natives are bound to be dangerous. Paddy, of course, not only talks with the locals about their customs, comparing Irish and Chinese myths, he eats their cuisine, and shows his comrades how to use chopsticks – an unheard-of skill for a British squaddie.

It’s in Singapore that Paddy meets his first transsexuals. Being Paddy, he’s irresistibly drawn to Boogie Street, the red-light area of Chinatown – probably because it’s officially ‘off-limits’. We see him in a bar with two trannies; one beautifully feminine (the actor was actually a woman) and one … a ‘handsome’ woman, in torn fish-nets and a string of pearls. They make a living providing sex for the visiting American sailors, but any mention of contact with them was absolutely taboo for Paddy’s superior officers in the RAF. “It only takes one rotten apple to spoil the whole barrel” was the prevailing wisdom. It felt bizarre to be watching this scene, knowing that outside the Coffeehouse was the bustling nightlife of St. James’ Street, the heart of Brighton’s gay scene.

It took seven actors to bring Paddy’s world to life. Very engaging, all of them, and certainly hard working – between them they played sixteen characters with a series of changes of costume and accents. A clever presentation, but rather let down by being difficult to hear clearly. Not inaudible, more that the characters delivered their lines at normal speaking speed, rather than with pauses to separate out the phrases and let the audience catch up. The dialogue sounded very authentic, just like real speech, but they of course had rehearsed it often, and we were hearing it for the first time.

Directors and actors often seem to forget that an audience is listening and processing the words in ‘real-time’, and that they need short gaps – spaces in the flow of information – to allow them to make sense of what they’re hearing. It’s a more than occasional problem with fringe shows, as a number of us commented in the pub later.

“The past is another country” That’s the point of ‘Paddy On Parade’ – to let us see the enormous gulf in attitudes separating us from the world of half a century ago. The Sixties was the era of The Beatles, but also of ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’. In the Sixties you could watch ‘Benny Hill’, but you weren’t allowed to read ‘Fanny Hill’.

I sometimes wondered if Eddie Alford wasn’t looking back with rather rose-tinted spectacles – Paddy’s attitudes seemed so far ahead of the prevailing morality that he was a little too good to be true – but for all that, this remains a fascinating and uplifting production.

Posted on    Brighton Fringe 2014

Love Sick

They’re aliens and their planet is in trouble. Their race is dying out from a horrible disease. So they sent out distress messages by radio and waited for a reply to reach them across the vastness of the Universe.

What they eventually got was Roxy Music … “Oh, Oh, can’t you see. Love is the drug for me”.  Obvious, really. That’s what they need – whatever this ‘love’ thing might be – so they’ve come to find out.

You could see right away that they were Aliens – no other couple (even in Brighton) go round in skin-tight body stockings – pale grey for her and an unforgettable mustard for him. Actually, we didn’t see them at first – their white cube space ship went through its landing sequence, lots of hissing and whooshing and fart noises (who knew that spaceships would fart ?) – and then a pair of tiny Barbie dolls were lowered down on rope in a surreal inversion of scale. A short blackout, and the couple themselves were standing in front of us.

Amalia Vitale has got the lithe body of a dancer or an acrobat, with big expressive eyes under a great spiky mop of black hair. She talked in a kind of eastern European accent, Russian perhaps, with long stresses on the vowel sounds. “Don’t worry, Human Beings. We’re not here to eat your brains. Or eat your kneecaps. Or suck on your spleen …”

“Or probe your bums” – Stephen Sobal is taller and heavier, with longish silver hair down over his ears and a five-o-clock shadow that was a few hours past five. His rather sad face made him look like he’d been left out in the shed overnight. He’s a quick-change artist too, diving off the stage and reappearing in seconds in costumes that would have taken most performers ages to put on.

The space at Upstairs at Three and Ten is quite small, and their delivery was loud and clear – which was just as well, because we had to listen through gales of laughter for the full forty-five minutes of this show. ‘Love Sick’ is a very physical production, with loads of frenetic movement and jumping around, but it’s the sheer inventiveness of their material that had us gasping. Vitale and Sobal are also very good at working an audience – there was a constant stream of little asides or knowing comments, and loads of eye contact.

They’re trying to find out what ‘love’ is, so they asked people in the street – we were played a bewildering variety of definitions as a sound track, which they tried to make sense of. (Well – what would your definition be? See, it isn’t easy!) Quite quickly, of course, they drifted onto the topic of Sex. Actually that’s not true – they didn’t drift at all, they plunged straight into it …

Dating advice didn’t help very much, so they turned to the animal kingdom, with nineteen-sixties nature documentaries. Vitale is an incredibly accomplished physical performer – the company specialise in clowning, too – and as she mimed to the sounds of an increasingly bizarre variety of animals and birds, she seemed to become each creature as we watched, awestruck. The bit where she’s a bird, getting fed, will stick in my mind for years …

The sound itself must get a mention. It’s completely integrated to this production – the music driving the action along, and the sound effects turning simple situations and movements into remarkably authentic-feeling experiences. There were a couple of tiny glitches with misplaced snatches of tracks, but it was the first night – and anyway they were immediately forgotten as the next surreal situation unfolded in front of us.

I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I won’t go into detail about how we threw our sperm at the stage – or why – and certainly not about how I dropped mine on to the floor (call me Onan !) Just take it from me that this is the funniest and most creative material you’ll see in the Fringe. At the end, the staff had trouble getting rid of the audience, we were still sitting there talking with our neighbours about what we could hardly believe we’d just seen.

You’ll just have to go and experience the show for yourselves.

Posted on    Brighton Fringe 2014

See No Evil,  Hear No Evil,  Speak No Evil.

One of the things I love most about Fringe drama is that the shows are not usually put on in ‘traditional’ theatres, the kind with a proscenium arch and a Dress Circle. They’re done elsewhere, and the directors and designers have to use a lot of creativity to fit their productions into small studio spaces, rooms above pubs – or a basement sitting-room at Gulliver’s Hotel, in the case of ‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.’

Rooster Theatre Company have managed to shoehorn three of Harold Pinter’s plays – ‘Landscape’, ‘One For The Road’ and ‘Silence’ – into a very restricted space indeed. It could fit fewer than twenty of us in the audience, leaving less than half the area for the three actors; but they managed to give us three different settings. As we entered, light was falling from the large window on to a couple eating breakfast – coffee and toast – at a small round dining table at one side of the room.

The man in dark trousers and a white open-necked shirt, The woman wearing a blue dress, which contrasted with the small vase of red flowers on the table. Their clothing, the blooms and the tall white coffee pot made the whole scene look rather elegant, and a small watercolour hung on a white panel to one side of them.

She talked as she stirred her coffee, lyrical reminiscences about walking on the beach in the sunshine, up to the dunes where her lover was waiting for her. As she continued, though, the man cut across her narrative by scraping butter onto his toast so loudly, so aggressively, that the noise almost drowned her out.

Then the man began talking, his words almost entirely about negative experiences – people he’d argued with or things that had turned out badly. They carried on like this throughout the piece – her rosily romantic memories intercut with his angry pessimism, and his memories of being unfaithful, as they talked past each other without ever connecting. They refilled their coffee cups several times, and at one point she pointedly poured coffee over his toast. He didn’t respond.

Pinter himself once wrote – “There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place. When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness”

That’s the essence of this production. ‘Landscape’ is a bleak view of non-communication in a relationship, and Laura Lee and Samuel Nunes de Souza managed to hint at great deal of anger – on both sides – locked beneath the seemingly placid surface. Their delivery was a bit quiet and rather fast – a realistic portrayal of actual speech but making it hard for the audience to keep up at times. Directors sometimes forget that the audience has to process the speech in real-time – unlike the players, who’ve said the lines over and over in rehearsal.

At the end of ‘Landscape’ the actors went off behind the white panel, taking the watercolour painting with them. Now a tall man walked on, in a black suit and tie, and closed the curtains, darkening the room. There was a small bureau next to the window, and he switched on a desk lamp.

Shortish hair slightly moussed up, beard a bit further on than just designer stubble, and good cufflinks; he looked like some kind of successful – and expensive – therapist or doctor as he greeted us, waving his index finger in our faces. “What do you think this is? Do you like me waving my fingers in your eyes? My big finger and my little finger.”

Nick – he told us his name – was obviously a bit strange (but that’s therapy for you), as he mused – “Whose side do you think God is on?”. Rather eccentric, if slightly creepy; but then suddenly, conversationally – “Where do you think your wife is? … She’s in another room … Good looking woman …”

A vertigo-inducing realisation. This thing is an Interrogation. Nick is some kind of Government security official, and it doesn’t sound like a very liberal Government. Now a light snapped on behind the white panel – it was in fact a translucent screen – revealing the shadow of a seated figure facing us. This is who Nick had really been addressing all along. The shadow figure sat very still, and it occurred to me that Nick’s index and little fingers would just fit into my eye sockets.

Alexander John as Nick, sipping whisky while he talks about his soldiers raping the man’s wife – and asking, almost as an afterthought, about his child. The actor didn’t overplay it – no raging or brutality, just the reasoned tones of a reasonable man, doing what’s necessary to defend his country’s values and religion. “The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear” says Pinter. Nick, with his smile and his little drinks – “Just one for the road, Eh?”, is the most frightening thing I’ve seen in months.

Alexander John’s delivery was flawless; we could hear every word with great clarity and occasionally he stood very close and stared directly down at a few of us. When that happened I couldn’t resist glancing at the shadow on the screen – to see how he was reacting. Designer Laura Duffy has done a very clever job with the set – the white translucent panel allowing the action to segue seamlessly from one location to the next.

Duffy is also the co-director of this production, along with Sofia Nakou, and they were equally creative with the third play. ‘Silence’ examines the relationships of a woman with two older men, each of whom might be possibly be, or have been, her lover (with Pinter it’s never clear). As in the other two plays, characters talk volubly to hide what they don’t want to reveal to another – or maybe even to themselves.

The curtains were still closed, and the three actors moved to a group of alcoves on the room’s other wall, and we all twisted in our seats to watch them. Nunes de Souza sitting on the left, John standing on the right, Laura Lee squeezed into an arched alcove at centre. The lines jump between the characters, and the actors held small lamps which illuminated just their heads, and only when they spoke. The lights snapping on and off gave an extra edginess to their words.

The left-hand alcove was pasted with squares of black card, regular and precisely aligned on the wall behind him. The regularity continued on to the left side of the arch, but began to break up at the top of the arch and the squares on the right-hand side were overlapping and patched with tape. By the time the decoration reached John’s alcove the squares of card had broken up completely into torn chunks, and at the far right into sharp-cornered triangles, like arrow heads or shards of broken glass.

Pinter’s text is clear about the difference of emotional stability between the two men, and this production’s set design made the contrast very visual. In their speech, too, Samuel Nunes de Souza’s voice was calm and measured, while Alexander John’s delivery was more staccato and angry. Both actors managed a completely different characterisation from their roles in the first two plays.

Overall, this was a creditable interpretation of Pinter, and a very imaginative use ofwhat must initially have seemed an unpromising space. An inspired choice of plays, too. Fifteen years or so separates ‘One For The Road’ from the other two plays, but Rooster Theatre saw that there were enough common themes to make a satisfying programme. It was a great shame that no programmes or cast lists were available at the venue, and the company doesn’t appear to have a usable website to showcase their considerable talents. Hopefully they’ll rectify this soon.

Posted on   Brighton Fringe 2014

Albert Einstein:  Relativitively Speaking

What would you need if you were going to put on a show about the life and discoveries of Albert Einstein? A difficult project – you’d be talking about events that happened almost a hundred years ago, and trying to explain stuff that almost everybody finds completely baffling. Not an easy pitch to make – “… and you want to put this on at The Fringe, to compete with all the stand-up comedians and music events?   You must be crazy.         Don’t call us … ”

Actually, the first things you’d need would be a Darth Vader light sabre and a large can of talcum powder. Plus three University professors and a world-famous science writer as a peer review team to get the science right. Oh, and a big white bed sheet and an electronic piano keyboard would come in handy, too.

You’d put it on at The Old Courthouse, where the shallow stage and incredibly steep rake of seating give the feeling of a Victorian lecture theatre – the kind of place where anatomy students watch dissections – but you’d choose to do the show as … a musical comedy.

John Hinton is one of those people I hate – a quarter of a century younger than me and at least three times as bright. He’s done what shouldn’t be possible with ‘Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking – he’s made the theories of Relativity, both Special Relativity and General Relativity (you knew there were two theories, of course?) understandable to a Fringe audience. Relatively understandable, anyway …

Hinton’s tall and thin, with a moustache and a great mop of dark hair. He wore baggy trousers and a jacket with sleeves that were too short. The overall impression was rather like an amiable scarecrow as he jumped around, gripping the podium to read his notes, or leaning forward at the front of the stage to banter with the people in the first few rows.

For this man can really work an audience. He was outside in the lobby while we were still queuing, shaking hands – “Welcome!, Welcome!, So glad you could come to my lecture”. (‘Velcome!, Velcome’, in his mock-German accent). Once we were seated, his wife Elsa came in and took up position at the keyboard on the other side of the stage. Jo Eagle is much smaller than John Hinton, a pretty woman in a white blouse and long black skirt, wearing a cloche hat. She’s a musician as well as an actress, and she played Elsa with big loving smiles as she provided the musical accompaniment to the show.

Einstein started by giving a speech of thanks for being offered a post at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University. It’s 1933, and he’s a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, but Elsa accompanied him on the keyboard and the whole speech was done as a musical number. They did this throughout the show, rattling off chunks of physics, philosophy or politics as songs – it’s not ‘West Side Story’, but it was done very effectively and kept the story buzzing.

Working the audience. Hinton got two people out of the front row, a woman and the man next to me who’d come in after we’d started (never go in late to a John Hinton show!), and got them up on stage as if they were on a date. The possibility of sex got our interest – but what he was really showing us was the ‘Internal Reference Frame’ that every observer has. He had them running towards each other as beams of light, and it turns out that the speed of light is constant, but what you see as an observer – your internal reference frame – depends on how fast you are travelling. As you go faster, time slows down and space contracts. (Now you see why they needed the University professors on board – and the retractable light sabre…).

In just a couple of minutes, and with no pain, Hinton had given us the basic principles of Special Relativity and I think I understand it. Later he did the same for General Relativity – the essence of this one being that the phenomenon of Gravity is due to massive bodies causing warps and curvatures in Space-Time. If you’ve got an enormous bed sheet to represent spacetime, and a couple of bodies – and there were plenty of those in the audience – you can produce a very convincing simulation. Hinton told us that the effect was finally demonstrated by measuring the deflection of starlight as it passed the Sun – but I don’t advise trying that one at home …

I wondered when we’d get to Einstein’s 1905 work on the equivalence of matter and energy, that’s famously expressed as E=MC². The calculations were done with the help of Einstein’s first wife, Mileva, and for this part Jo Eagle reappeared in a chequered headscarf and a frown that would chill you right across the stage (the marriage ended in a very acrimonious divorce). Eagle also played Einstein’s mother later, in a bonnet that time – are there no limits to this woman’s versatility?

They did the E=MC² one as a rap, with Mileva bashing out the rhythm on the keyboard and Einstein making the jerky hand movements to spell out the equation. Real rappin’ moves, Hinton bringing up three fingers on one hand and twisting his shoulders to the rhythm, elbows in, legs pumping up and down – “Make an ‘E’, make an ‘M’ …”. Ice T, Jay Z, Ali G – eat your hearts out!

Hysterical. And then the mood turned sombre with the Second World War and the realisation that what had seemed purely theoretical science – matter is frozen energy – could be used to make enormously powerful bombs. Hinton gave us the anguish that Einstein felt at his responsibility for this, and his decision to write a letter to President Roosevelt urging the Americans to start working on the Atomic Bomb. His hair turned grey as Elsa tipped talc over his head. Later she held up newspapers so that we could read the headlines about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while Einstein moaned to himself – “Two hundred thousand souls … two hundred thousand souls …”

It’s the changes of mood and focus which make this production so engaging. We’re convulsed in laughter and then very quickly we’re almost in tears. Hinton gave us the complete Einstein – the emotional lover and husband, the analytical theoretician, the moralist, the philosopher. He makes a very cool rap artist, but later he grips the podium and stares out at us and he’s the Einstein the German scientist – “You are here to learn!

He’s really at home with the science, too. There are two doors at the back of the stage, and at one point Einstein expected his wife to enter through one of them. She actually came on stage through the other door, so the audience saw her before Einstein did – which got a laugh. Hinton didn’t miss a beat – “That’s quantum uncertainty for you.” he commented (which got a bigger laugh). A bit of an in-joke, really, but at the end they handed out sheets with short definitions of the scientific terms that they’d used. Great for following up the ideas we’d been shown, but if you want one, you’ll have to go and see the show. Relatively straightforward ?

Posted on   Brighton Fringe 2014

The Girl and The Goat

They’d created a forest on the black stage at The Warren. Tall panels of foliage at the sides and rear, brought to life by blue and green lighting flickering over the dark leaves, like daylight filtering down through the treetops to the forest floor. Everything very symbolic, with a circle of rocks defining a small pool, and all the subtle forest noises – splashing water or wind through the branches – created by an operator seated like a musician at one side, playing on an array of vessels containing water or small pebbles, the sounds picked up and amplified by microphones.

The flyer for the show said that it’s set in the Ashdown Forest, in the 1800s; but when the actors came on it looked like something by Brecht – ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’, perhaps. Two young women in long white dresses, one dress turning red above the waist, and a rather stocky shaven-headed man in loose-fitting grey clothing, pushing a wooden cart – their father. A farming family, harvesting fruit by the edge of the forest.

Tenant farmers, obviously, as the next person to appear was their Landlord – a tall man with long black hair swept back over his ears, much more smartly dressed in slim-fitting trousers and a black waistcoat over an immaculate white shirt. Right from the beginning we could sense a certain tension between the landowner and his tenants – would he exploit his power over them?

There is very little dialogue in this production, and almost no props apart from the cart. The fruit picking was all done with mime, and as they worked, the four of them sang – “Of all the trees that grow so fair, / Old England to adorn, / Greater are none beneath the sun, / Than Oak and Ash and Thorn.”

Oak, and Ash, and Thorn. Trees of the forest. ‘The Girl and The Goat’ is all about The Forest, and the dark mysteries that might be found there. Faye is the farmer’s elder daughter – she’s the one with the reddish dress – and she feels a deep affinity for the trees. Her father tells her – “The forest lights up your eyes the way it did your mother’s”

He’s a widower – their mother is dead, like in so many fairy stories. For this is of course a fairy story, and Faye, who’s not long ago made the transition from childhood to womanhood, constantly sneaks away from the domestic routines to find solitude and freedom amid the trees. In the forest she encounters Pan, at first glimpsing the goat-legged god through the foliage, and later meeting him face to face …

Pan was played by James Lumsden Riccetto, a thin, wiry figure with dark bushy hair and a beard. He was covered in brown fur breeches from waist to knee, and small black goat hooves covered his toes as he danced through the trees. Not dance per se, but very expressive movement, crouching and creeping then leaping powerfully into the air, managing to convey both mystery and mastery. So thin that we could see his ribs, and sometimes as he stretched out his arms he looked disconcertingly like the crucified Christ.

Elizabeth Johnson used the same sort of movements playing Faye. She didn’t do structured, rhythmic dance steps, but twists and swoops of her body. When she’s trying to pull away from her family they tug at her, trying to hold her back as she reaches out, straining to break free, her face anguished – the whole group under tension, surging back and forth across the stage. Later in the forest, her face was at first fearful and then ecstatic as she realised that she was in the presence of some kind of god.

Very symbolic, very physical, very intense. Synaestheatre specialise in physically-inspired movement performance, and they have devised this production collectively. I asked later about the singing, and was told that they had set one of Rudyard Kipling’s poems to music. It’s ‘A Tree Song’, from ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’, a book in which a very ancient spirit of the woods, Puck, enchants two children with stories from the history of England.

The company are using some deep symbolism in this piece. The Forest has always been a place of mystery and lack of rules. Outlaws live in the forest, and exiles, and lovers go there for privacy. Pan is the goat god of myth, but he’s also a relic of the Pagan religions that were suppressed under Christianity. There is danger in the forest, and sexuality, but there’s also freedom from the limitations of a conventional life.

Director Deborah Ward has created this mysterious environment using only the most minimal staging – as I mentioned above, it has the simplicity of Brecht. She’s given us the basic cues, and we audience members fill in the detail for ourselves. A wooden cart becomes a cottage table when people stand around it eating, a ring of pebbles becomes a forest pool. Fruit is picked, doors are opened, by miming the actions, and we are happy to take part in the illusion.

But it’s Michael Corcoran’s lighting which brings this production alive. Soft russet colours for the harvesting and the farmer’s cottage, greens and blues giving the forest scenes a sense almost of being under water – certainly a long way down below the daylight above the trees. Corcoran also put in brilliant white backlighting which sharply outlined the figures of Faye and Pan as they moved around the stage, appearing and disappearing through the panels of foliage. He’s still a student, it seems, but this was a very exciting and professional result.

A few problems – the actors were occasionally visible as they moved into position across the back of the stage, and the watery sound effects were sometimes too subtle – not clear or loud enough.

Overall, though, this was a magical production – not an over-complex story, but beautifully executed. Like all fairy stories, it’s actually about growing up, overcoming problems and prejudices to follow your own desires and become fully adult. I left The Warren feeling moved and uplifted.

Posted on   Brighton Fringe 2014


Do you want this review to be prurient, or do you want it post-modern?

‘Sister’ is a show featuring two pole-dancing women – two sisters – and they give us the sort of performance you’d normally go to Soho to see …

Let’s start prurient. The acting space at The Marlborough was completely black, with purple light washing down from the rear, illuminating a shiny black pole mounted on a black metal base at centre stage. A line of tiny red lights along the stage front and six or seven small round tables, set out with seats like in a club, with more seating behind.

It looked and felt like a small and rather sleazy nightclub. Loud music thumping away, making it hard to hear; and a tall woman, with long copper-brown hair and dressed in just a lacy black bra and pants, up on stage, entwining herself sinuously around the pole. A second woman moved round the tables getting us seated. Slightly slimmer, but with the same beautiful copper hair and identical black underwear. Almost twins.

They got two audience members up on the stage, sitting on seats with their backs to the audience, and began to dance for them. To them, really, as they were up very close. But also to us at the tables – they were facing us as they gyrated and bucked through their routine, running their hands over their limbs and bellies and tossing back their long hair. After a while they eased off their bras and continued dancing topless.

Another minute of this, then they sent the visitors back to their tables and continued dancing, one on each side of the stage, finally kneeling and slipping off their pants so that they were completely nude. I thought that would be it, but the women continued caressing their breasts and thighs, eventually kneeling head-down to display their entire backsides to us, leaving nothing hidden as they reached between their legs to stroke their genitalia …

No. No. That’s prurient, if it’s what you want – but that’s not what the show’s about.

‘Sister’ is actually a show about choice – the choices that people make in their lives, and also the choices that an audience makes about what it sees. Very post-modern, in that what we choose to see of the situation – and what we choose to ignore so that it disappears – depends very much on us, and how we’ve been conditioned by our families and by society.

The two women eventually moved to the back of the stage, ran their hands through their long copper hair, and took off what turned out to be – wigs! One had jaw-length blonde hair, swept back over the ears, while the second was completely shaven-headed. They donned dark silk dressing gowns – the sex show was over for a while – and talked about themselves while Amy (the blonde) gently removed makeup from her sister Rosana’s face.

For they actually are sisters. Born in London, brought up in Hertfordshire along with a younger brother, and they now live far apart – in Berlin and Glasgow. They told us about their early sexual experiences – quite early ones in Rosana’s case, having oral sex explained to her at eleven by her younger brother. Traumatic? Possibly, but then Freud talked a lot about the sexuality of children …

As they matured, their lives seem to have diverged. Amy was attracted to sex with men – lots of it – and chose to get involved in the sex industry. Rosana grew to prefer women, and became defiantly and aggressively feminist. They made their choices, but their lives mirror each other in odd ways. Amy – “I was a lap-dancer called Rosana”, but her sister retorts – “I am Rosana, and sometimes people think I’m a man”.

A lot of the show continued to be performed with both women naked – dancing with the pole, occasionally lying supine on the floor, rubbing themselves – but by now it didn’t seem so erotic. They were no longer sex goddesses cavorting for our titillation, they were women, with needs and desires. And pasts – while they danced, a video projector cast images of two young children onto the back of the stage behind them, jerky home movies that we were told later actually were of Amy and Rosana – the whole show is remarkably honest and personal.

Amy became a sex worker. She read from a letter to her mother – “I’m really happy. I love the life I lead. I know some of the decisions I’ve made have upset you or confused you, but I’ve always felt I was making a positive decision for myself. I’m painfully aware that many people are forced into the sex industry, and for them it’s no choice but sexual slavery. But I do like it – I meet interesting men from around the world”. And so on. She seems to have made her choice with open eyes.

Amy seems content – she gets a lot of sex and is presumably well-paid. A lot of sex workers contrast their activity with the low-paid drudgery of factory or call-centre work, and who am I to judge? But of course, all of Amy’s activities are geared towards satisfying men. Actually, she never talked about those men as people – their personalities or their conversation – just about their penises …

As Amy finished her letter, Rosana pulled on a pair of black Doc Martens and started stamping on the metal base and smashing her fists against the black dancing pole – how’s that for Freudian symbolism? Rosana likes sex, but she likes it with women and not as part of the porn industry. At one point later, Amy was dancing, wrapped sinuously round the pole, while Rosana put her hands into black boots as well as her feet, and circled the stage naked on all fours, not on her knees but with her back and buttocks arched like some lumbering beast. Is seemed that Amy was celebrating her idealised feminine sexuality, while Rosana reminded us of the animal nature of human sex. Interesting that Amy, the blonde, had shaved her armpits and most of her pubic hair, while the shaven-headed Rosana had left all of hers growing naturally.

In another section the two women sat, telling us about their lives. Both talking at once, their stories started off identical, voices in unison, and then started to diverge. After a while there were two completely different monologues taking place simultaneously. Choice – it was possible to focus on one narrative stream to the exclusion of the other, and then to decide, consciously, to focus on what the second woman was saying. Two voices at equal volume, but we could choose which one to hear as ‘signal’ and which to push to the background as ‘noise’.

Late in the show, Rosana sat on the pole base, lit from above by a spotlight that gave her naked body and shaven head the quality of a harshly beautiful sculpture. She spoke thoughtfully to the audience, looking at us directly as she listed the choices that she had made in her life, pausing between each phrase –

I’m choosing to do this / I’m choosing my words / I’m choosing to share them / I’m choosing to perform – to show you my body / I didn’t choose my body / I didn’t choose my family / I didn’t choose my name / I didn’t choose where I was born / I didn’t choose the house that I grew up in or the town where I grew up / I chose to leave

Lots more, several minutes of choices; a kind of testament, and later –

I’m choosing to show you my naked body / I’m not choosing whether it turns you on or disgusts you / I’m choosing not to care

Rosana can also be funny – in fact there was a lot of laughter in the show – and at the end she looked at a woman on the middle table –

I didn’t choose what you were going to wear / I wouldn’t have worn that …

‘Sisters’ is a very powerful, thought-provoking production. I have memories of it which will stay with me for years. But will my memories be the same as another audience member? I saw a naked woman pole dancing, sensuously stroking the shining shaft, while on the wall behind her she and her sister danced and smiled into the lens of a camera – small children many years ago. Which reality were we to choose?

At one point the video showed one of the children dancing, swinging round the pole of a garden parasol, and we got the irresistible impression that she was practising – at age three or so – for her later life. Time flows in one direction only. We can rewind the film but not our lives. We made choices along the way, and we are what we have chosen to become.

Posted in   Brighton Fringe 2014


Have you ever eaten a ‘Tasting Menu’? That’s where the restaurant offers small portions of a number of dishes as a single meal. You get glimpses of what’s on offer, but without the commitment, and possibly without the pleasure, of eating a full course of any one thing. TIPS had that feel. Intriguing morsels from the lives of the restaurant staff at ‘Ciao’, but without the satisfaction of chewing on a solid lump of something more meaty.

The setting was brilliant, though. As we entered the basement space at Brighton Media Centre we were welcomed by Diane. Tall and slim, with blonde hair cut crisply short and dressed in a smart white blouse and immaculate black trousers, she was the Manager at ‘Ciao’, and asked us to wait to be seated at our table. We were a Christmas party group, it seemed, and a number of tables had been moved together into an elongated U shape, dressed with red tablecloths and menu cards ready for us.

The room we were in is the Photographic Studio, which has a large white-painted alcove at one side – curved where the floor meets the walls so that it produces a seamless white background for photography – an ‘infinity cove’. This was brightly lit and they used it as the kitchen and bar area of the restaurant, while our table was in the black-walled main part of the studio, with much dimmer, more intimate illumination, as befits Ciao’s actual dining area.

We talk a lot about the ‘fourth wall’ in theatre – how the audience peer across the front of the stage, or through an actual proscenium arch, to view the unfolding drama from outside. From Brecht onwards, directors have tried to break through and interact more closely with the audience. In TIPS, director Rachel Guershon and Rayosunshine Productions demolished the fourth wall completely – we could watch proceedings in the kitchen and bar, but we were still intimately part of the action as the waiting staff brought us our meals and drinks.

There was no actual food in the show. Everything was mimed, and when we were seated and served drinks we were handed empty glasses, and asked to order our meals from a blank menu – we had to act, too. But it worked – it felt like a real restaurant as the waiting staff in their red T shirts (Ciao logos on the front in green, of course) joked with us a little, and handed out crackers, as it was a Christmas do. (I have to report that mine didn’t make a bang and my paper hat wasn’t glued properly so I couldn’t wear it …)

An authentic feel – and of course we could see across into the kitchen, where the staff were gossiping and an obviously unhappy chef was crashing plates around. There were six of them in the kitchen – the chef, an eastern European man in his forties, a barman, possibly in his early thirties and also foreign, and four waiters in their early twenties. Oblivious to the customers outside in the restaurant, the younger staff gave us snippets of their lives as they chatted about their relationships and grumbled about their working conditions.

But there were too many characters for us to connect with all at once. Two men, three women, all speaking quite quickly – about an absent colleague with a sexually transmitted infection; about failing an audition for a dance school; about whether the restaurant is going to avoid closure… All the usual banter of people working together, and all possibly relevant to the story, but following it was like trying to pick up snatches of conversation from a neighbouring restaurant table. It got easier, of course – after a while we could distinguish them one from another, though some names were still hard to make out and I was glad of the programme later.

But in the time available – the whole piece lasts just forty-five minutes – we got only tantalising slivers of what seemed to be an interesting set of lives. At the end, I wanted to know more about Abbie’s relationship with her sister Grace, and her romance with Ben the barman, and the problems the girls had with their father when his wife died. After all, I’d watched Abbie, Grace and Ben for three quarters of an hour and I had started to know them.

It was the same with Diane the Manager, who it turned out was a single mother with a four-year-old daughter. The staff were shocked when that fact was revealed, and so were we, but I wanted to know more: Diane had seemed so much in control but – “I can’t afford to buy her the bike she wants for Christmas”. A lot of the action had Diane (beautifully played by Esmé Patey-Ford) trying to motivate her unenthusiastic team. The restaurant is obviously not doing well – close to closure – but Diane’s energy is dissipated on problems like waiter Ant snaffling ravioli off a plate before it goes out to the customer.

The central storyline of the play concerns the theft of the jar of customers’ tips – nearly three hundred pounds – and how the staff react to the situation. Will Diane be able to deal with her staff’s anger? Will the culprit confess? Will the whole team be fired? Csaba the chef was a detective back in Hungary, and he can see things that the others have missed…

The play as a whole tackles a number of themes – The lack of job satisfaction in restaurant work, the pressures on managers to meet targets, the trials of being a single parent, and of course the difficulties of being a foreigner – both Csaba and Ben have migrated to find work, and Csaba has left his own four-year-old back in eastern Europe. All fascinating subjects, and cleverly woven into the story, but none of them is examined in enough depth and I wanted to hear more about all of them.

Rachel Guershon and her sister Sarah wrote TIPS together, and they’ve created some great characters who certainly caught our imagination and our sympathy. But they haven’t developed them very far, and that seems to me to be a waste. Rachel is a superb actress – I saw her in ‘Betsy’ last year where she was unforgettable as an 19th century Brighton prostitute. Here, she plays Grace (Sarah plays Abbie), and as well as the writing, she has directed the piece.

Sometimes a director can be too close to the material, especially if they’ve also written it. If they know all the dialogue and the back stories of the characters, it may not be obvious to them that an audience, starting from scratch, will find it hard to keep up. An outside eye might have helped.

But for all that, this is still a production that is well worth seeing. The staging is imaginative and very confident and the actors are engaging and believable. I would like to see TIPS again, but with the dialogue run a bit slower and the play extended to well over an hour, so that the characters and themes could be explored in greater depth. This is a restaurant, remember, and I don’t want just four pieces of ravioli – I want an entire plateful.

Poster on   Brighton Fringe 2014

Beauty’s Legacy

A collage – some new, exciting and creative pieces, mixed in with some bits of recycled old tat – cobbled together to create something that has a life of its own. That definition could describe the Brighton Fringe, of which this is the first show I’ve seen this year, or it could be the monster created by Victor Frankenstein, or indeed it could be this review itself …

‘Beauty’s Legacy’ is a retelling of the Frankenstein story – though the ‘F’ word is never mentioned. Instead, we have Professor Victor, who’s been working away in his laboratory to create – ‘the genetically perfect human being’. It’s a manic, hour-long romp, set in the very near future (there are ‘hover-tube’ trains, but they still announce – “Mind the Gap”), and a lot of it is very funny indeed.

As always in this kind of tale, the mad Professor has helpers – his wife Constance and his bumbling assistant Lance. Simon-Anthony Rhoden plays Lance with a slightly squeaky voice and a completely over-the-top black wig that has the shape and texture of an old fashioned floor mop. Professor Victor is running out of time and money for his project, and he needs a quick result, so he decides to use his gene machine on his hapless assistant.

‘Beauty’s Legacy’ is the perfect scale for the Dukebox. The three actors are squeezed onto the tiny stage, and the audience is right up against them, so it had the intensity of a stand-up comedy gig when Victor asked us – “Who here in this room has been told they’re not good enough?”. A few hands went up, and Victor leaned out towards them – “I think this happens because … you’re not good enough”.

Mark Finbow has dark hair and a narrow face, and in his black shirt and thin blue tie under his white lab coat he made Victor look the classic rogue scientist. Like a modern Mephistopheles, he offered us ‘genetic perfection’, and with a flourish he announced – “I can make people perfect. This is my legacy to you. This is – Lancelot“.

As well as the three actors, they had somehow found room for three screens on the stage. Like hospital bed screens, portable, but covered in pages from tabloid newspapers taped together – more collage. These worked to define room spaces or doorways, and hid character movements around the stage. The transformed Lancelot stepped out from behind one of these, a superman, and there was a shocked gasp from the audience.

Gone was the black mop; Lancelot had Simon-Anthony Roden’s own hair, cut very short, and his voice had become deeper and richer. His muscular torso was sheathed (that’s really the only word that will do here) from neck to upper thigh in a sort of skin-tight one-piece cycling outfit. Impressive in any instance, but this one was in some shimmering gold material.

Gone was the black mop; Lancelot had Simon-Anthony Roden’s own hair, cut very short, and his voice had become deeper and richer. His muscular torso was sheathed (that’s really the only word that will do here) from neck to upper thigh in a sort of skin-tight one-piece cycling outfit. Impressive in any instance, but this one was in some shimmering gold material.

See how I’ve re-used that paragraph to swell out my review and make it look – bigger? Well, that’s what they did with Lance. Padded out the bit that Victor, looking downwards, refers to as Lancelot’s ‘package’. “Quite foreboding. A package of foreboding”. (At least, I assume they padded it out …)

Victor’s wife Constance is horrified by what her husband has done to Lance, but there’s more than just a nod to ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ in this production, and like everyone else she can’t keep her eyes off his ‘package’. Frankenstein’s creation went on a killing spree – in this updated version Lance gets taken up by celebrity culture –

Talk shows – Today in Celebrity News: Who knew that science could be sexy?”,

Television – “With a smile like this I could sell toothpaste. With a voice like this I could win X Factor. With buns like these I could crack coconuts”.

Eloise Secker played Constance, and a few minor roles too, alternating between comedy and pathos as the occasion demanded. At once point, as a momentary character called Janice, she tells of having a sexual encounter on the hover-tube – “I don’t know what came over me. Well, I do actually – it was Lance”. (no wonder it’s got an ’18+’ notice on the flyer …) Their delivery was sometimes a bit fast to catch the words clearly, but all three actors know how to work an audience.

I mentioned pathos – it seems that Victor has been driven to produce perfect human beings by the death of his and Constance’s baby boy. At one point she takes Victor’s lab coat and folds it into a small bundle so that it becomes their blanketed baby which she cradles in her arms. A very moving moment – and then almost instantly we snapped back to the absurdity of Victor threatening Lance with a gun, which in reality was a child’s tiny plastic toy firing sucker darts.

It’s hard to do subtle lighting at the Dukebox, and it wasn’t wanted here. This production drenched the stage in reds, greens or blues, or the frontal white spotlight that made it so much like stand-up. The three newspaper screens allowed a lot of locations to be ‘sketched in’, and on several occasions they were used with backlighting to make a kind of shadow theatre.

But the shadow parts didn’t work at all. The light wasn’t bright enough to be effective through the newsprint, and the Dukebox stage isn’t deep enough for a lamp to cast proper shadows. The actors were moving and interacting behind the screens, but all we saw from the front was a confused blur. Obviously this is a touring production, and the effect might well be better on a different stage.

There’s a great deal of physicality in the show – the three dance, jump and sing their way through the lines. A lot of sound, too, especially during the movement sections but also when the actors are doing their version of tv and radio ads – lively rhythmic music by what their flyer describes as ‘pop noir soulsters Mirrors’. At one point Lance starts a Church – “Society needs me”, and like an evangelist prayer meeting we were shouting out “Hallelujah” and “Amen” like true believers.

So it’s hard to define ‘Beauty’s Legacy. It’s a modern take on a classic story, it’s a musical show with lots of movement and physicality, and it has a lot of the audience interaction of stand-up comedy. Most importantly, it got a lot of laughs from the audience. The props and staging are terribly crude, but there’s a knowing professionalism behind the amateur façade. I learned afterwards that Mark Finbow had written the show, and that he and Simon-Anthony Roden had studied together at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. The Keeper’s Daughter is a company to watch out for, I think.

Posted on   Brighton Fringe 2014

Fragments of a Fallen City

“Citizens of Argos, Citizens of the islands, Citizens of Sparta. Come with me – so many stories to tell.”

Upstairs at The Regency Tavern we had been put into three groups – citizens of different parts of Ancient Greece, and led down the narrow stairs into the building’s cramped basement. The air is different below ground, cool and slightly damp, and we got a sense of descending into the Underworld, Hades in Greek mythology, where brave souls can venture to visit the dead.

Suddenly a door opened in the crowded room and Iphigenia was standing in front of us. A slight woman with fair hair, long and disordered, and dark haunted eyes, she was dressed in a floor-length clinging white dress, the upper part stained dark red with clotted blood from the neckline to the waist. Blood from the terrible wound where her throat had been slashed across, leaving streams of gore running down her neck.

Iphigenia, princess of Mycenae and daughter of King Agamemnon who led the Greek army to Troy. Iphigenia, who was sacrificed at Aulis so that the Greek fleet would get a fair wind. Iphigenia, whose blood was only the first blood shed in ten years of bloody war on the plain outside the city of Troy, and who would now show us brief fragments of the orgy of bloodshed and destruction that was Troy’s eventual fall. “Come with me” she commanded us to follow her deeper into the Underworld.

Squall + Frenzy have staged ‘Fragments of a Fallen City’ as a promenade production, taking their audience through the warren of small storerooms beneath the pub, where they’d set up a series of scenes telling the story of the horrors of the end of Troy. The Trojan men are all dead, slaughtered by the Greek soldiers who breached the city’s walls by the trick of the Wooden Horse, and Troy’s women await their fate.

The production is in three parts, closely linked thematically, with the middle section (the longest) based on ‘The Trojan Women’ by Euripides. The company have used Ellen McLaughlin’s 1995 adaption of the play as their text, a choice which points out the universal nature of the material. McLaughlin wrote her version as a response to the Balkan wars after the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the brutality inflicted on the Bosnian citizens – women especially – in cities like Sarajevo and Srebrenica.

Two and a half thousand years separate the siege of Sarajevo from Euripides’ Athens, and the Trojan War was almost another thousand before that, but in each case the fate of a conquered people lies in the hands of the victors. ‘The Trojan Women’ was written during the Peloponnesian War, when both Athens and Sparta behaved with great brutality, and the Athenian army had recently invaded and ravaged the population of the island of Milos, slaughtering all the men and taking the women and children away to slavery. Euripides was using the story of Troy to comment on his own times, but his play also speaks to today’s world of ethnic cleansing and mass rape.

‘Hippomania’ was the first part. Following Iphigenia, we squeezed into a small room where, surrounded by rubble and lit by a single hanging bulb, a woman in modern combat fatigues and a bloodstained T shirt was tending a wounded man on a makeshift bed made out of pallets. He was revealed as Sinon, the Greek who had convinced the Trojans to bring the Wooden Horse into their city. Before believing his story, the Trojans had cut off Sinon’s nose and ears, so his face was completely hidden by bloody bandages, and at first it seemed that the woman was a nurse.

But it became clear that she was in fact Polyxena, one of the daughters of King Priam and a princess of Troy, and that the city had already fallen, with Greek soldiers rampaging through the streets above this bunker. Polyxena (a gripping performance from Greta Gould) knows that only slavery or death await her when they are finally discovered, and she wants to make sure that Sinon shares her fate. There’s lots more blood as she castrates him and then cuts out his tongue so he cannot identify himself, and when a Greek soldier bursts in – black battledress, balaclava and heavy pistol, like some Special Forces commando – she hopes he will shoot the helpless Sinon where he lies.

“Your blood is to be spilled on the grave of Achilles, for your part in his death – the Law demands it.” Polyxena was led away – “Don’t pity me, I go to an honourable death.” As we followed her out, I was very conscious of the silent figure of Iphigenia standing in the shadows behind the audience – her blood had been spilled at the very beginning of this war.

The power of this production comes as much from the inspired choice of setting as from the intensity of performance of the ten actors. Though sometimes a little too strident, they were almost always very believable, speaking with great clarity as they delivered lines staring at the audience, or looking straight through us towards some distant memory. Their clothing was modern yet somehow timeless – vests under loose cardigans or scarves, often ripped or marked with blood.

All the rooms bare, apart from tattered sheets over windows, and rough unpainted pallets dumped on the floor or against walls. There was heavy plastic covering shelves in some rooms, with yellow/black warning tape, and I assumed that this was to protect Regency Tavern stock, but then some orange notices informed me that “all these goods and chattels had been taken by order of Agamemnon, High King of Mycenae” and would be divided up by lot on the beach before departure.

During the second section we met the newly-widowed ‘Trojan Women’. The pub basement area has a small, high-walled courtyard, and as we entered, four of them were there, wailing in grief, bemoaning the loss of – “Our scattered families, our ruined City”.

They were the common people of Troy, shopkeepers and artisans. One of them (presumably she was a baker) moved round us offering a basket of broken bread, which we took and ate in a strange sort of Communion, while the notes of their rhythmic ululation echoed off the sides of the yard. When they talked about how they had dragged the Horse through the streets of the city, in what they had mistakenly thought was triumph, they stared towards the sky, and as the audience followed their gaze upwards I for one could almost see the enormous wooden head above the courtyard walls.

In our different groups, we were then led through a series of low-ceilinged cell-like rooms where we met the royal women. Hecuba, queen of Troy until yesterday, in a long purple robe, bruised but still proud as she contemplates her loss and her uncertain fate – “Soon I’ll stand in the back of a ship and watch the smoking shore disappear from view.”

Poor mad Cassandra, herself bloodied, maniacally scribbling BLOOD and HAPPY TROJANS on pieces of paper. Happy to be claimed by Agamemnon as a sexual prize because she can forsee that – “When he carries me with him he carries his death.” They will both be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra. Cassandra will be dead, but so will the man she hates so much – “mated beside him in the open grave.”

On to another cell, and Andromache, the widow of Trojan hero Hector, wondering for how long she should hate the Greek whose prize she is, even though – “I am given to the son of my husband’s murderer. I am to go to his bed.” Remaining slightly hopeful at this stage, as she still has her baby son with her – but all that will change when the Greeks hurl his tiny body off the Trojan battlements …

And finally, Helen, the cause of the war, self-obsessed as ever – “Whatever you dream, you will always be dreaming of her. Night after night, your city will fall for her. She is the fire that hollowed you out. She leaves ash, and silence, and moves on.” Helen of Troy, Helen of Sparta – at the end the only woman unbloodied and unbruised, her silky biscuit-coloured dress unstained, immaculate and shimmering.

But it’s not the end. In the third part, ‘Helen Bound’, we find Helen back in Greece, chained in a cell, waiting for her husband Menelaus to find the moral strength finally to kill her. For the first time in her life she can’t get everything she wants, which is probably her worst punishment. She’s visited in her captivity by her sister Clytemnestra, her daughter Hermione, her cousin Penelope (wife of Odysseus), and by the diseased Cressida (who gave up Trojan prince Troilus for Diomedes the Greek, and was betrayed in turn).

These women relate their litany of betrayals or murders to Helen, and they each use her to measure their own problems against. Helen is the benchmark of adulterous, inexcusable infidelity, and by accusing her the women make her into a kind of scapegoat, which somehow lessens their own guilt. This piece was written by Isabel Sensier, who is down in the programme as Designer. Conor Baum is listed as Director (he also wrote the first part) but I was left with the feeling that the two had shared both these roles.

‘Fragments of a Fallen City’ is a long production, almost two hours, with no seating and no breaks. A bit of an Odyssey, really, but the audience followed intently throughout. On the surface it follows the conventional narrative, demonising Helen as an adulteress, but it’s actually a very feminist take on the Trojan story. Most of the betrayals and murders are down to men – and it’s men who seem to need the sexual conquest that goes along with victory. This theme is powerfully brought out in Sensier’s ’Helen Bound’, but the production as a whole made me want to read more about the Trojan War, and revisit all these stories.

As Iphigenia says at the start – so many stories to tell.

Posted on   Fringe  UK-wide

Our Dancing Feet

“The dancehall. That’s where things happened – that’s where you could meet people”.

“Dancing was amazing – it brought us together”

“Quite often they would have a big band at the Winter Garden – Ted Heath, Geraldo, Billy Cotton, that sort of thing”

“If you found someone you particularly liked, you just hung onto them for grim death and snogged around the floor”

It’s eighteen steps down from the foyer to the lower level at the Winter Garden, and then there are four double glass doors from the lobby leading through into the main hall itself. Back in the fifties, young women would have skipped arm-in-arm down the red patterned carpet of those steps, drawn by the throb of the music and eager to get on to the dance floor.

That was a long time ago; but the creative team of ‘Our Dancing Feet’ had set up pairs of shoes – highly polished men’s or strappy, high-heeled women’s shoes – suspended from the lobby ceiling. They were hung along with small loudspeakers, the slightly rusty innards of fifties radios (I suppose I should say ‘wireless’) and if you stood close you could hear voices reminiscing about the old days.

There were almost a dozen sets of speakers and shoes, each giving out a different voice – a different memory. As we walked through the lobby it was like being at a party, catching snatches of conversation and then moving on. I watched little groups clustered around the shoes, leaning in to try to make out the words – to recover someone’s experiences through the inevitable deterioration of time.

Having just the shoes and the disembodied voices was very moving – a mixture between experiencing a vivid memory and a ghost. Half way up the stairs there was one lone shoe lying against the central banister and I wondered which Cinderella’s shade had lost it as she rushed away at midnight …

For this show is all about time. It’s set in 1953, on the night before the Coronation, in a Britain that feels very different to the one we live in today. On the stairs we met silver-haired Joan, an old lady now, remembering her younger self – Joanie – being at the Winter Garden in the company of her friends Vi and Babs.

And then we saw them, Joanie and Vi in their dancing frocks with full underskirts, Babs much more vampish in a red sheath that clung to her voluptuous figure. Working class girls – typists and shopgirls, there to meet factory apprentices or young men doing their National Service. Trembling with excitement and anticipation – “Loads of people met their partners there”.

The social codes of that time – “You’ve got to learn to dance, ‘cos everybody danced in those days”, but when they were on the dancefloor – “we had to wait to be asked”. At the top of the stairs was a large portrait of the young Princess Elizabeth, about to become Queen, and the girls were awed by the low neckline of her gown and by her jewels. Later, the bandmaster referred to the Coronation as a moment – “which makes us all proud to be British”. We had an Empire, and a quite rigid class system, and the racial makeup of the country was almost totally white. It would take exactly twenty-five years, till the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, for a very similar portrait to be defaced by The Sex Pistols and used as the cover of ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’.

‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’. As a site-specific promenade production, ‘Our Dancing Feet’ gave us total immersion in the Britain of the 1950s. We moved upstairs to watch young men and women learning to dance, getting the steps right, then back down to the main hall to hear the music of the era from a four-piece band and to see the dances they performed – the waltz, the quickstep, the tango. We saw Charlie, a young apprentice, meet Vi and offer to buy her a drink – “I’ll have a Babycham”. And in the ladies’ loo with her friends, Babs in her red dress yearns for “a Cherry B”.

And of course it’s about sex. Babs is very attracted to Joe, who’s playing jazz records – “that’s Charlie Parker, he’s American”, and is a great dancer – she dances the tango with him, ending spectacularly with her leg right over his shoulder. The tango is a very sexual dance (especially performed here by Anna Symes and Ivan Fabrega) and it’s obvious that the vampish Babs is interested in more than just a dance. Joe has to explain to her that he’s “happier dancing with men”, as he does when he works on cruise ships, and he reveals a little of the threat of prison that being gay risked back then, and the loneliness that drove many gay men to suicide.

But it’s also about class. Joe has travelled the world on his cruise ships, but Charlie, Babs, Vi and the rest have quite limited horizons. Factory, filing cabinet and family seem the only options for young working-class people. Joanie, though, has been accepted for Teacher Training College, a step that will mean moving away to the North and losing contact with her friends. As a teacher, of course, she will enter the ranks of the middle classes, and her world will become very different.

She has just danced with Charlie, who’s smitten by her, and convinced that he has found ‘the one’, and when Joanie tells him that she’s going away he shows some class resentment as well as emotional disappointment. I don’t know whether the show’s writer Sara Clifford has read ‘The Uses of Literacy’, but it certainly feels like it. Richard Hoggart’s 1957 book was largely about how education allowed working class people to escape from manual labour into more intellectually satisfying, higher status careers.

But there’s always a price, and for people like Joanie it often meant estrangement and loss of contact with their families and their community. Class loyalty is very strong, and breaking it seen as a betrayal, something you do at your peril.  We watched as the older Joan urged her younger self to take the step and better her prospects, and the guilt and anguish of the decision for Joanie. Touching performances from Jean Trend (as Joan), and Charlotte Dubery.

Great art, and I think that this production is great art, is often able to tell a big story by closely examining something small. Sara Clifford has produced a poignant evocation of a dance hall of sixty years ago, but she’s also given us a sense of the enormous social changes that have taken place in Britain since that time.

She and her co-producer Veronica Stephens have tapped into local people’s memories and given us a form of oral collage, both with the shoes in the lobby and also with a wide-screen video animation of similar material in the Winter Garden’s bar before the start of the show. They’ve used a lot of local people, too. The dance sequences in the main Floral Hall had dozens of couples circling the floor to the music of the live band, and it felt – real. At the show’s finale, the whole space was filled with groups of dancers, local people ranging in age from children right up to pensioners. It was a very visual evocation of the passing of the decades.

We were there, in the fifties, and yet somehow the spectacle also managed to have the quality of a vision, shimmering just out of reach. It was sometimes hard to hear the characters – it’s a big dance hall, remember, and they weren’t miked up – but that didn’t detract from the experience. Neither did the audience – there were around a hundred of us promenading around the building, but of course we didn’t feel like an audience – we became the dance hall crowd, and so the illusion of a night at the Winter Garden was made really intense.

Posted on   Fringe UK-wide

To The Green Fields Beyond

Kirkpatrick  –  “I’m after the truth about this war”.

Child  –  “Which?  –  German?,  English?,  Civilian?,  Military?,  Newspaper truth?.”

*   *   *

Mo  –  “Bert One-Stone’s a scientist.  A German.  Two years ago, on the eve of the Somme, he published his theory.  …  He said that what we took as truth wasn’t truth at all.  He showed the reality behind reality is from all perspectives”.

“He proved other things too. That matter is just energy, temporarily locked up, an emission of trapped nothing …”   Mo is only a private in the Tank Corps, one of the lowest forms of life on the Western Front, but he’s more clued-up on intellectual developments than most of his Great War comrades.  He’s read about Bert One-Stone – probably better-known to us as Albert Einstein – and the multiple and simultaneous viewpoints of General Relativity obsess him.

Relativity theory underpins the whole structure of  ‘To The Green Fields Beyond’.  What you see depends on where you’re standing, in space or time (Einstein would have said ‘spacetime’), so the American journalist Kirkpatrick is hopelessly off the mark when he asks about the truth.   Child, the officer commanding the Mk IV tank of which private Mo is a crew member, gets much closer when he asks – “Which truth?”

Nick Whitby wrote ‘To The Green Fields Beyond’ almost fifteen years ago, but it’s the most comprehensive, multi-faceted image of the Great War that you are likely to see in this centenary year.  Like a lot of great works (and this is a great work) it illuminates something big by examining something small – in this case the crew of a tank, the night before an attack somewhere on the Western Front, in late 1918.

They’re mostly working-class Tommies – even Child, their commander, is only a schoolteacher in civilian life – we’re a long way from the gilded public schoolboys of so much Great War literature.  As the American Kirkpatrick observes, they are – “an unusual … collection.  I meant your two negroes”.  In fact, Dice is from Jamaica and Lion is from India.  The journalist comes from an America of strict racial segregation, and Corporal Ain puts him straight – “Dice is an engine man … Lion is a Sikh. Punjabis, Machine Gun Corps. Best Lewis gunner in the Army. Warrior blood. Born to it. It’s their religion. We only take the cream, see”.

And why not?  As Mo explains – “What we are is talent. Each one of us can strip an engine down and put it back again, drive her and navigate her, read a map, work a radio, mend it if needs be, the lot. … We’re a new class is what we are. The Future. Technologians, Mechanicals”.  All these men, of whatever colour, may be subjects of the British Empire, but they are gaining a new confidence that will make it harder to return to the old certainties of rulers and ruled when the War finally ends.  Remember that in Russia at this time a revolution had already occurred, fired by Lenin’s line – ‘Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains’.

But Nick Whitby has not written a Brechtian piece about Socialism.  He’s wise enough to understand that a sense of being ‘The Future’ led many Europeans towards Fascism.  He’s interested in what bonds the men together as a unit, a team.  Later in the play some crew members question whether they can avoid taking their inadequately armoured tank into what seems like the certainty of destruction.

Mo, the quantum relativist, understands that – “What we are choosing here, in simple terms – is life or death. That choice is an easy one for me”.  Lion, the warrior-blood Sikh, of course sees it completely differently – “This discussion is improper. A soldier’s duty is to fight. Only that. To question is a kind of madness”.  Another private chips in – “Not to question our position is madness”.  The play addresses fundamental questions of ethics and personal responsibility … over mugs of tea round a fire in a French wood.

It’s Ain, the tank’s driver, who articulates the sense of bonding that will carry men forward even into death.  “If we cut – if we do, then every time we’ve ever had together, everything we’ve ever known, the moments we’ve done, shared – is made into something else, napoo, gone”.  And later – “I’ll drive you, I’ll follow you, whatever way you go, but let’s do it in one mood and one heart.  No one dragging, no regret, no one hung up. Together.  Then I’ll face anything”.

As primates, our evolution seems to have left us ‘hard-wired’ with a sense of group identity.  The nineteenth century Darwin got closer to the human condition than the seventeenth century Descartes, with his notions of ‘free will’.  (Note how I’m carefully avoiding using the word ‘truth’ here …)  And of course Einstein himself was a child of the nineteenth century.

Perspective.  Kirkpatrick the journalist can see only muddle and blame – “I need something that shows the great lie”.  But Child sees a more complex truth – “There have been two wars in this war.  The first – a war of mud, and innocence, disillusion.  And a second war. It is, to coin the phrase, ‘futuristic’. … You think this war is under-planned?.  Take out a shell.  A high explosive shell, be careful.  Unscrew the timing cap – just one shell in millions – what’s there?  Twenty-two separate pieces of tooled brass. Like a fob-watch. Each piece machined to within a fraction of an inch, put together just so to make the timer balance, by hand, just so.  The craft of it !  The precision, the love and care that goes into it”.

Tank commander Child understands that the future world of the military-industrial complex is being born.  The American is puzzled that their tank has ‘The Time Machine’ painted on the side.  Lion explains – “It’s from a story.  About a man, he builds a machine, it takes him right into the future.  The future’s just war never-ending, and the people end up living underground.  Uncanny”.

The journalist has brought a prostitute to the men’s camp, as a sweetener and a bribe to get his story.  They set up a blanket to create a makeshift ‘room’ where the soldiers can get a moment of sexual release, satisfying the physical side of their primate make-up.  Flesh on flesh.  The woman is Belgian, but – “I do not think my country will give me a medal.  It doesn’t matter.  So many men must have died within days of coming to me”.

Flesh. The climactic release of orgasm.  But it’s down to Lion to point out different perspectives on flesh.  As he tells the American – “A Lewis gun can fire at six hundred rounds per minute.  If you reach the enemy’s position and you are still receiving fire – you fire into that trench, all four Lewis guns at once into an area like this. That is forty bullets each and every second for twenty, thirty seconds, more. One thousand rounds of heavy ammunition at point blank. For this time the air itself turns crimson red. For some time afterwards this red cloud of … vapour hangs there, above, and you can smell it even from inside the tank. The blood and the flesh”.

Dealing with material like this must be both a privilege and a responsibility.  Director Nick Warnford and the entire ‘Two Bins’ cast have produced something unforgettable.  There are eleven actors, and it would be unfair of me to single any one out for special praise, as this was ensemble playing of the highest order. Totally believable, gripping performances from everyone.  The power and emotion of the acting made this a real five star production.  Suffice to say that although it was hot in the upstairs theatre space at The Open House, and I was told later that an audience member had fainted, I saw nothing of any of that – I was in a wood in France …

And I was in a wood in France.  The men’s uniforms and coveralls were authentic looking, but the staging itself was very minimal – just a set of blocks to suggest uneven ground, and a greenish backcloth surrounding the acting space.  Very simple frontal lighting.  The prostitute’s ‘room’ was created by hanging a translucent piece of material in one corner which could be lit by a couple of tiny lamps, just enough to reveal the woman and her companion, and then these could be extinguished to refocus our attention on the foreground area.

A film version of ‘To The Green Fields Beyond’ would have created the wood with a complex set, or with CGI effects, but theatre is a more ‘grown-up’ medium, and as  audience we were allowed to create our own ‘woods’.  For me, that approach catches the spirit of the play – each of us came with a different perspective, and each of us created our own reality.  I know exactly what my wood looked like …

Posted on    Fringe UK-wide

For The Trumpets Shall Sound

We do love our anniversaries, and 2014 is going to be a biggie.  One hundred years since the start of the First World War, and everyone wants to be involved.  A host of theatre groups are putting on Great War productions this year – they’re forming up in the assembly trenches as we speak – but one of the very first to go ‘over the top’ is Another Story Theatre Company.

We seem to need to approach world-changing events at a human scale, it’s the only way we can make sense of them, and Gaëlle Stark-Ordish has written a love story – two intertwined love stories actually – that take us very close to the world of 1916. She’s used a lot of the common Great War tropes – articulate, upper middle-class young officers, starting to show the first symptoms of shell-shock, frustrated with the poor generalship above them and the uncomprehending public back in England – but she’s looked at the situation from a gay viewpoint.

The play starts with that often-used device: the discovery of Great-Grandfather’s photo album and his wartime diary.  His grand-daughter Ruth and great-grandson Jamie know nothing of James Wilmington’s time in France – “he would never talk about the War” – and are puzzled by references to ‘Robbie’. The diary makes it clear that this is Robert, a fellow officer serving with James in France, and at this point the scene transforms to a dugout somewhere on the Western Front, where we meet both men.

The two must be in their very early twenties, and the Cambridge-educated Robert has just returned from leave – “Second night back, I woke up. My sister told me I was shouting at the wall and waving my arms wildly about. Everyone thought I was going over. Odd, isn’t it? – I’ve never had nightmares here.”  Seconds later, the dugout receives a direct hit and James is wounded.

Recuperating in a field hospital, he meets Nora, a volunteer nurse who turns out to be James’ cousin.  Their mutual attraction is obvious, though shy and tentative, and we look to be set for a conventional love story.  When James returns to the front the pair start to keep in touch by letter.

The staging of  ‘For The Trumpets Shall Sound’ is simple but very effective.  Flat frontal lighting onto The Marlborough’s black stage, with a dim blue backlight silhouetting the actors during scene changes. James’ grand-daughter sits on the edge of the stage at one side in a spotlight, reading diary entries out loud to give continuity between the actors’ speeches.  Initially I felt that Bil Rose was much too young to play a woman in her late fifties, but she gave a very convincing performance as Ruth, her voice occasionally breaking with emotion, and dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief  just enough, without stealing attention from the others.

The letters between James and Nora were spoken direct to audience, the actors standing side by side in a spotlight at the front of the stage.  The audience themselves  sat at small round café tables, giving the space the feel of a cabaret or French estaminet.  This is very much a touring production – I was told later that the intention is to take the show to schools as well as fringe venues – and Gaëlle Stark-Ordish’s minimalist design should transfer effectively to a wide variety of locations.

James and Nora keep writing to each other, but the letters are full of details of their work, and though there is talk of an engagement they seem too shy to let any emotion, let alone passion, show through.  Passion finally surfaces unexpectedly in another direction, when James and Robert are sharing a billet and Robert confesses that he’s – “not interested in the fairer sex at all. Not my thing … if you get my meaning.”

It’s the difference in moral attitudes that’s the most intriguing thing about this play.  We were in The Marlborough theatre, which presents a fair amount of gay-themed productions, and less than a quarter of a mile from the heart of Kemptown, Brighton’s gay centre, and yet on stage Robert raised a glass to James – “Here’s to friendship – though you may very well despise me soon enough … Now I suppose you’ll get on to Battalion HQ.”

“You took a bit of a risk in telling me.” said James, followed by – “I’m so sorry, Robert.”   “I don’t need your pity”, retorted Robert – “I’m not at all ashamed … But it would kill my father – after he’d killed me, that is.”

But he is not alone. Faced with Robert’s honesty and trust, James quickly asserts that their feelings are mutual, and the two men declare their love for one another.  They face a raft of problems, of course – not least what James will do about Nora.  For he does love Nora, but not with the same carnal intensity that burns for Robert.

Coming out is never easy, but the last century has seen enormous changes, both social and legal.  The law on homosexual relationships was only changed in 1967.  That seems an age away to us, but it’s only half the time that’s passed since the Great War.  Gay men like Robert and James were up against a draconian  military code, and also a civilian world where the stigma of being an ‘invert’ could destroy a family’s standing in society.

In the end, James will almost certainly do the acceptable, expected thing, and marry Nora, making the best of the relationship – even managing to have children with her.  It’s the ‘best course’, which Robert encourages him to follow, and which Robert himself will probably navigate too – marrying some girl his family approves of and “getting drunk enough to do what’s necessary.”

There are more developments to come, and not everyone survives – but I’m not going to spoil it for you by giving them away.  We got excellent performances from Kayleigh Hawkins, brisk and competent as nurse Nora, like some captain of hockey in an Angela Brazil girls’ school story, but at the same time wistful and nervous as she tries to put her emotions into words; and from Benjamin Bradford as Robert, heavier-built than James, his darker, almost swarthy complexion and deliberate, confident body-language giving him a rather rakish air.

James himself was played by Tom Syms – he also played great-grandson Jamie at the start.  His thin frame and pale complexion gave us the impression of someone whose uniform was always a touch too big, as if he hadn’t quite left his public school.  When he was confronted by Robert’s declaration of his sexuality, Tom played James sitting with his knees drawn up almost to his chin, arms wrapped nervously round them clutching a glass of whiskey with both hands – a gripping performance.

And yet – for all that Gaëlle Stark-Ordish has written about the gulf that separates our social mores and attitudes to sex from those of 1916, she is still using the stereotypes common to Edwardian and Great War literature.  This play feels as if it features Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon or Robert Graves – more public school, university educated upper-middle class men whose sensitive poetry and prose have given us our imagery of the Western Front.  Where are the working class Tommies from Robert and James’ platoons?   At one point Robert says, of being gay – “It wasn’t until I got to Cambridge that I found other chaps who could … talk about it.”

Really?   Did Robert never get a sniff of the working classes?  The lower orders were certainly doing a lot of gay sex in the Edwardian era, and the upper classes were getting their share of it.  Surely the point of the change in attitudes over the last century is that we can now discuss this subject openly?  We don’t need to be like E M Forster, who wrote ‘Maurice’ and couldn’t publish for decades.  And if Stark-Ordish thinks that there was no inter-class sex going on, she should remember Book 4 of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu‘, it’s not called ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ for nothing …

But for all those flaws, this remains a powerful production that gets its audience very close to the terrors and traumas of that awful time.  I believed in the characters, and cared about them, their story and their future lives.  They were all so very young, and so many would never grow old – I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s book about the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War.  That book is ‘Slaughterhouse 5’, but it’s subtitled  ‘The Children’s Crusade’.

I was intrigued by the play’s title, and of course (thanks, Google) it’s from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 15/52 – ‘For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.’

Posted on    Fringe UK-wide

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