Reviews 2019

The following reviews are listed in order, just scroll down to find them  –  Brighton Scratch Night 2019 / Cherry Soup / The Merchant of Venice

 

Brighton Scratch Night 2019

 

When I’m not writing reviews I’m a photographer, and recently I bought a wonderful book called ‘Contact Sheets’. Back in the days of film, photographers would lay out a set of negatives from a ‘shoot’ on photographic paper, to produce a print of the entire session, from which they could choose the best ones. The joy of this book was that we could look at sets of pictures from iconic photographers like Robert Capa or Cecil Beaton, and examine how their ideas developed as the shoot progressed, and which images they finally chose or rejected.

The Brighton Scratch night has the same sense of looking over someone’s shoulder at a work in progress, with new writing being tried out while still in an unfinished state. Some are short plays which might possibly be extended to full length; others are nearer completion but needing an airing to get a sense of audience reaction. It’s fascinating to watch creative work as it’s ongoing, before its final polish; like looking under the bonnet of a car to see the belts and pipework of the engine.

And as one of these plays will be put on at the Rialto Theatre as part of next year’s Fringe – the Scratch Night audiences will decide which one – and others will certainly be staged elsewhere, there’s no way I’d want to miss seeing how the final results turn out.

So Rialto Theatre, along with Unmasked Theatre, Pretty Villain and George Lassos The Moon Theatre, need recognition for providing a very important service. Thanks.

Six plays this year. Done with the simplest of props, and no scenery on the black Rialto stage. All of them pretty much complete in themselves, rather than being excerpts from a longer piece. Plays rather like short stories, often with an unexpected twist or revelation at the end. Interestingly, a number of them had a science-fiction flavour. Because of that simple structure – ‘build the situation and then reveal the surprise’ – I’m not sure that all of them could be worked up into full length pieces.

‘Music For Cats’ by Fran Lanting. directed by Scott Rob

One of the major time-travel tropes is the ‘Grandfather Paradox’, the idea that if you go back and change the past, by killing your grandfather for example, it could have significant consequences in the present. ‘Music For Cats’ links the concept of commercial time travel with our contemporary insurance industry, with its small print get-out wording. “I’m sorry, that’s excluded under Clause Forty-Seven”.

Peter is the rather dismissive company representative (James Macauley in an unforgettable red bow tie) whose job it is to rejcct The Woman’s claim on her policy. For the loss of a son it seems she never had – remember the contradictions of time travel. When she gets difficult, and Christine Kempell turning her gaze away from Peter towards the far distance made the woman seem very difficult indeed, Peter calls in his much steelier Manager. As they do. Steely – I wouldn’t want to argue with Karina Mills. There were a lot of clever lines about the nature of time, and the piece could be extended to flesh out the story much more fully, but at this length it came over as a bit word-heavy, with too many concepts jostling for our attention.

Sammy. by Christopher Owen. directed by Matt Turpin.

A slow start to this one, letting us work out for ourselves that the couple’s child had died sometime before (‘Show, don’t tell’, as the Creative Writing mantra puts it). A very believable portrayal of coping with grief – or not coping. Bill Allender’s John had moved on, Jo Morgan’s Carrie was still locked into Sammy’s death, five years later.

And then suddenly there’s Moira – Fundamentalist Christian, fundamentally totally lacking in empathy. Elly Tipping played her without ever seemingly pausing for breath, with fanatical commitment to the cause of baby Sammy’s right to life, after his doctors allowed him to die from his incurable condition. It’s really a play about social media, and people who live by reality TV and celebrity culture, and how it makes us feel that people who are total strangers are somehow ‘family’. John is appalled by her behaviour, and Moira is the creepiest thing I’ve seen in months. So well written and portrayed that I believed in her as a real person, there in front of me. Something that good theatre is able to do – create living people out of black marks on a sheet of paper. A miracle

Shy The Devil by Wendy Haines directed by Pip O’Neill

A very funny contemporary take on magic, this one. A pair of modern schoolgirls trying to set a curse on men. All men – because “men are dicks”

Morgan Bradbury’s Grace is driven to magical revenge because her relationship with her dad isn’t good. There’s good interplay between the intense, obsessed Grace, and her cynical friend Faye (Ella Verity), who’s not really convinced by the book of spells, but goes along with her friend. Nice balance in casting – Grace dark haired with glasses, Faye blonde and a bit more worldly. Some good lines about the difficulty of attempting medieval formulations with modern supermarket products. But there’s an unforeseen result to their amateur necromancy – be careful what you wish for.

The Anchor and The Wave by Joe Von Malachowski directed by Lauren Varnfield

I have my own title for this one – ‘Clocks and Cocks’ It’s a couple in their thirties – Guy and Gal (John Black and Pip O’Neill) have been together ten years; obviously young urban professionals, presumably with successful careers and a surfeit of material goods, who need to find some real meaning to their existence. He worries about getting old, and ill; she worries about domesticity, motherhood; whether she’s cut out for it.

Her problem is that her biological clock is ticking. In his case it’s sexuality, he’s drawn to the idea of sex with a man. There’s some great dialogue as they discuss their options, one of which is that – what he does, she does. Gal insists there must be rules if they are going to try this. and what Rules they must observe “Rule Three – Don’t tell your mother!”

So they decide to both try same-sex experience. Gal gets a non-stop talker ( Katie Pattison) who can’t believe Gal’s so inexperienced at the gay scene. Guy gets a strong silent type, Aaron (Jon Howlett). “Do you want me to suck your cock?” is about all Guy’s date says (and one assumes there’ll be a quid pro quo …). Our boy’s face tells us that he’s in much deeper than he’d imagined …

Lovely staging from Lauren Varnfield, Minimal, with just four black boxes that could be seating, then became the couple’s bed. She gave us evocative lighting to differentiate the two couples at the end, and choreographed a series of beautiful stage movements, like moments of eye contact between them, and Gal stuffing the couple’s duvet while discussing their relationship.

Brain Fog by David Varela. directed by Christine Kempell.

I thought that this one was going to turn into a documentary about the causes and effects of Multiple Sclerosis. Lucy Mepstead’s Dr Weller was so much more informative than many doctors I’ve known. The symptoms of MS that Kate McGann’s Lisa experienced crept up on us – and on her. Memory and hearing loss while watching television, that her partner Nick (Neil James) notices but Lisa won’t admit to at first.

It’s Progressive MS, which means it’s going to get worse. So Dr Weller offers a radical cure – scanning Lisa’s brain into a different, healthy, body. Transferring all her memories and emotions, so that her personality can continue without the ravages of the disease.

It’s an interesting concept, and clever science fiction, like something out of ‘Black Mirror’. But there’s an unforeseen consequence that I hadn’t considered, which produced a harrowing conclusion to the piece.

Battlesong by Aine King. directed by Luke Ofield

I confess – I plumped for this one on the first night, even though it was a different play which got the Rialto audience’s vote. Totally bonkers, with some completely over-the-top costumes and dialogue. It started with what I took to be a homeless person on the street somewhere, in his anorak and sleeping bag – but it turned out to be fifteen year old Jack, trapped with a group of historic re-enactment fanatics preparing to relive the Battle of Hastings.

Jack just wants to play music, at a festival some distance from there, in miles. But then he meets Matilda, and she’s come from even further away, in years.

Who exactly Matilda is, wasn’t spelt out overtly – “show, don’t tell” – but the situation could certainly be extended further if the piece is turned into a full-length play. For now, we had Saxon warriors in warpaint slashing at each other with edged weapons – and then stopping for a moment to check their mobile phones … Unforgettable.

Too many people to namecheck in the review – see how I’m breaking the ‘fourth wall’ of reviewing here – so here they are. Jack was Ruben Pol, Matilda was Morgan Bradbury. Jack’s parents, and assorted re-enactment fanatics, were Sarah Widdas, Ella Verity, Warren Saunders, John Black and Murray Scott.

Brighton Scratch Night 2019. Six plays, three nights, enthusiastic audiences. And a fully produced piece to look forward to at next year’s Fringe. What’s not to like?

 

*

Cherry Soup

Did you know that it was the Romans who brought cherries to Britain?

No, me neither.   But they did; along with onions, leeks, sweet chestnuts, and herbs like rosemary, thyme and basil.   It seems they brought garlic, too, which puts an interesting spin on the traditional English distaste for ‘that stinky foreign muck’.

I learned all this from a roadside cherry-seller called Hannah, sitting in a lay-by with her folding chair, her punnets of fruit and her ‘Cherries for Sale’ sign to attract passing motorists.  As well as selling her fruit, Hannah chats to quite a few of them.

It wasn’t an actual lay-by – it was one end of the warm and welcoming bar of The Hope Inn in Newhaven, and all of our cars were safely parked outside.  For this was a production commissioned by Inn Crowd, an organisation which supports rural pubs throughout the South East of England to host spoken word, poetry and storytelling performances.  We were an attentive audience of a few dozen, and the regulars at the other end of the bar kept their voices low out of respect for Hannah’s performance.

Hannah is fascinated by people and their stories, and by the changes that happen to cultures and landscapes over time, and she acted out some of the interactions that she has with her customers.  People like Ken, who showed her beautifully crafted stone tools, thousands of years old, whose workmanship couldn’t be matched today.  He talked about skills that have been lost, along with local features: like a traditional orchard, sold to a City banker who bought it just for profit and never visits or works the property.  Or Mike, a retired engineer who works with like-minded pensioners fixing machinery and keeping metal-working skills alive.  Mike wonders if we can relearn mechanical techniques at a time when most young people are glued to their mobiles.

Hannah has a bright and cheery personality, but there’s a constant sense of sadness and loss in her stories.  She meets Yasmin, out for the day with group of women, but choosing to walk separately, at her own speed.  Yasmin needs the solitude; she tells Hannah of being forced out of her University job, suffering imprisonment and torture.  But where?  We weren’t told, and that made Yasmin’s situation universal – she might be a Syrian woman, or a Ukrainian, or from any of dozens of repressive countries that force their citizens to become refugees.

Or Lyn, an old friend of Hannah’s whose son is fearful of leaving his home.  Hannah has tried to get him interested in the open spaces of the South Downs National Park, but Aaron’s world is depressingly small. Hannah tells us that this is nothing particularly modern; a century ago the local Brighton youths were uneasy at the thought of going as far as … Eastbourne.

So England changes, yet England stays the same.  Hannah had shown us fossils from the chalk beds that underlie the South Downs, and we’d learned about the changes brought in by the Roman colonisation.  The British Empire did a lot of colonising itself, of course, with the sugar and cotton – as well as opium and slaves – providing the wealth that kick-started British industrialisation and world domination.  It’s the African and Asian citizens of that Empire who naturally gravitated to the ‘Mother Country’ who have so unsettled a section of ‘white’ British society.

But there are Europeans who are changing the status quo here, too.  Poles. Romanians, Bulgarians.  At the end, Hannah tells us that her own family is from Hungary, that she worked as a fruit picker with other itinerant workers before moving on to her present job selling the produce.  Cherries are not ‘foreign’ to her – her mother used to make a traditional Hungarian cherry soup.

Hannah isn’t really Hannah, of course.  She’s a very talented actor called Joanna Neary.  Joanna’s done stand-up as well as traditional theatre and TV, and she was able to bring her characters vividly to life; switching accents, speech patterns and body language to give us a kaleidoscopic impression of the South Downs inhabitants.

Cherry Soup was written and produced by Sara Clifford.  Sara led discussion groups and workshops and interviewed many, many people across the South Downs to gather the material for Hannah’s stories.  A lot of Sara’s work concerns local people and communities, especially oppressed and disadvantaged groups.  It was good to watch Joanna Neary’s performance at The Hope Inn because it’s a favourite pub of mine.  Plus, a few years ago, Sara Clifford staged ‘Home Fires’, a promenade production about First World War army recruits preparing for deployment to France, and the terrible conditions they had to endure in a military camp at Newhaven.  That took place in Newhaven Fort, perched on the cliff above The Hope Inn, so this production felt almost like coming home.

“England changes, and England stays the same”   This performance of a beautifully realised piece at The Hope Inn was just one of a tour of stagings in pubs  across the South Downs National Park.  By the end, hundreds of people will have watched a very engaging theatrical performance, but we will also have had our eyes opened a bit wider to the traditional life of the region, and how quickly it’s changing.  Hannah tried to get Aaron interested in the National Park as a ‘Dark Skies’ area, where an absence of light pollution allows a clear view of the heavens.   Seeing the stars above is wonderful, but this production gives us a clearer perspective on our own community.   These days, that’s incredibly important.

 

*

The Merchant of Venice

 

I haven’t seen ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in years, and taking it in al fresco on a sunny evening seemed a very Brighton thing to do. But this wasn’t run-of-the-mill; this was a very feminist production, with clever casting by Director Mark Brailsford.

Two powerful central women.   Jules Craig as Shylock, Amy Sutton as Portia.   Great physicality from both actors.  When they were on stage together, in the courtroom scene, the atmosphere was electric.

Craig gives a towering performance as Shylock.  Sutton is poised and sparkling as Portia.

Craig as Shylock gave us very believable indignation at the chronic abuse she’s suffered – a poignant rendering of “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands? . . .” And a dogged insistence on getting what she considers her rightful due – in money, but also in respect.   Even when he’s asking for her help, Antonio still treats her like dirt.

The play is seen as a ‘Problem Play’ in that several different themes interact. On one level it’s quite anti-semitic – Shylock it portrayed as a stereotype Jew.   But Shakespeare also shows us the abuse and vile treatment that the Jews receive in Venice.

There were very good performances from the entire cast – Duncan Drury in particular has a very mobile face, which clearly portrayed his emotions of embarrasment or anguish. Drury is very watchable, and the layout of Brighton Open-Air Theatre meant that occasionally he was sitting right next to us in the audience.  As were the others. A beautifully audible production, with very clear diction – not always pulling the exact meaning or nuance out of some lines, but making the story very easy to follow.

We first saw Shylock out walking with her daughter Jessica, admonishing the girl for talking to an audience member in the front row. The supporting couple of Nerissa and Gratiano – Kerren Garner (who was the Assistant Director) and Stewart Barham – carried on their over-the-top courtship right across the stage and up the tiers of BOAT’s oval seating. When Paul Moriarty’s Antonio was awaiting his fate at Shylock’s hand, he sat, head in hands, in the front row, and the sense of resignation was heartbreaking.

Making Shylock a woman tilts our perception of the piece, brings out the gender politics of the story.   Shylock is a second-class occupant of Venice (she probably doesn’t have the status of ‘citizen’) and as a woman she’s second-class anyway.   But in this production, they probably despise her for being a powerful woman even more.

Which makes Shylock fascinating, as a Jew but also as a woman. Here’s someone that the Venetians have to deal with commercially, but who they can’t respect as an equal human being.

In the courtroom, Shylock also reminds The Duke (actually The Doge, of course) that in spite of all the talk of kindness and pleas for mercy, the Venetian state is a slave-owning state.  They buy and sell other human beings for their own benefit and profit.  I imagine that there were probably slaves being carried as cargo in some of Antonio’s ships, to be sold for those duccats that the Venetians despise the Jews for amassing.

Portia is fiercely intelligent and a powerful personality – but she’s dependent on her late Father’s instructions as to who she can marry. To be fair – the tests are actually for her own good – but that’s not the point.   Her father doesn’t trust her to determine her own future.   And when she finally does marry, she immediately hands over all her wealth and authority to her husband.   Only men have the power in Venice.

Even Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who could be thought of as an ungrateful spoilt child, has actually made her own decision, as a woman, to follow her heart and leave her family and her culture.   Personally, though, I don’t approve of her taking all her mother’s wealth with her, so that she can continue to live a privileged life at the expense of her defeated parent.

But that’s another intertwined strand of the play.   Money.   Portia has inherited hers from her father, Bassanio’s an aristocrat, but penniless, so he has to borrow Antonio’s money in order to get hold of Portia’s wealth.   True, it seems he loves her – but I’m sure her fortune must have helped – “So, Bassanio, what was it that first attracted you to the rich heiress Lady Portia? . . .”

It’s years since I’ve read ‘The Merchant of Venice’, and I’d forgotten about the fun at the end. The Director has made full use of the humour in the play – the broad comedic antics of Launcelot Gobbo (one of several roles Mark Brailsford took himself) and the stuff with the rings that the men have been persuaded to give up. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ can be a serious portrayal of the bonds of friendship, duty – and also of anti-semitism – but the comic interludes lighten the message. Rather like in ‘Lysistrata’, where Aristophanes writes a powerful criticism of the Peleponnesian War, which would probably have got him exiled or worse, but dresses it up a a sex farce.

I’ve classed this production as a ‘Must See’ show.  It’s only on for a short run, but the imaginative casting and powerful performances – especially from Jules Craig and Amy Sutton – make it something really special.  Fie on you (as Shakespeare might have said) if you missed it.