So, just before my Brighton Fringe reviews come rolling in, there’s just time to catch up with the latest offerings from the north-east’s fringe venue, Alphabetti Theatre. They’ve been having a busy month centred around a straight swap with Theatre N16 in London. First they showed their very first play shown at the current venue, whilst their very first in-house play showed in London at the same time. Then they swapped round. In the latter case, it was part of a double-bill with a choice of a second half: either another play from N16, or two “response plays”. I went for the first choice as I’ve never been convinced by the concept of response plays, although to be honest, my choice was largely dictated by the fact that was the only time I could see it.
This is going to have to be some speedy reviews and I’m typing this an my train to London, so let’s get started.
The very first play at Alphabetti, I never saw it last year but I’d heard a lot of good things from people who had. But was this simply out of loyalty to the new venue. Since it was coming back for an encore, I thought I’d give it a chance this time. And it turns out I needn’t have been sceptical – it really was as good as I expected.
Frank Sumatra is a delightfully surrealistic comedy that addresses the question everybody wondered but no-one dares ask. Just what happens when you sign up for one of these “adopt a primate” schemes. You might think it’s all a superficial personalisation where you get a picture of one animal whilst your money goes into a generic fund – but you’d be wrong! What it really means is that one day the orang-u-tang turns up on your doorstep for you to look after. But, like traditional human adoptions, it’s not raising a cute child from birth like they’d have you believe – you’re taking on a difficult teenage orang-u-tang, and what’s more, he’s learnt how to use the speak and spell app on the iPad to let his new adoptive parents knows what he thinks of them. What follows is an hour of Kevin the Teenager, if Kevin the Teenager was an orang-u-tang.
But the icing on the cake was how they presented it. As you might appreciate, an orang-u-tang isn’t the easiest thing to put on stage, so the solution was to do it as a radio play. Well, sort of. I’ve seen stage plays done as “radio plays” before and never seen the point of it – most of the time it would have made a perfectly decent normal play, so why sit them down in front of scripts? No, I’m on the opinion that if you’re going to do it this way, you’ve got to make the most of this, and that they do. Presented as a three-hander, Neil Armstrong directs a husband and wife doing a very clever balance between taking into radio mikes and still acting the the story – but the funniest bit of all has to be the sound engineer who provides all to noises, included the titular primate. Very funny to watch him hurry between all the different sound effects and then leap into orang-u-tang mode.
When local fringe theatre performers frequently fall into the trap of taking themselves too seriously, this is a welcome antidote. Writer Mike Yeaman is definitely a name to look out for. Okay, I’m past Retford now. Better now on.
So next came this piece from Louise Taylor. I’ve already reviewed this last year, and I ended up giving this runner-up for Best New Writing of 2015 against tough competition. This time round, the play has been substantially rewritten, tightened, and the order of the flashbacks changed, but I stand by what I said last time. If you can’t be bothered to click on the link, the short version is that Louise Taylor wrote an intelligent play about Hanny, an international aid volunteer in an unspecified country who was kidnapped by unspecified militants before being released. Her work was always messy but it got really messy on her release, when a nosy journalist asked too many questions, Hanny had to give a vastly exaggerated story to get rid of her, and now has a payoff she didn’t want and wants to donate it to her charity for the ransom she assumes (wrongly, as it turns out) they must have paid. There are lots of moral dilemmas brought up in the play, but it doesn’t get preachy and instead lets you think for yourself.
One of the measures of how good’s the script of a play is how much you extra you pick up the second time round, and that I did. One thing was the fear involved. When Hanny assures her boyfriend that the story in the papers wasn’t true and all her captors did was argue over what to do with her, that’s true, and yet it’s still downplaying it massively. In the flashback scenes (staged excellently by director Ali Pritchard), we see just how terrifying the mere threat of physical harm is. Use the knife now or use it later. Start the torture now, bearing in mind they don’t have the medical supplies so they won’t be able to stop once they’d started? It’s called The Frights for a reason.
And the other thing I picked up was the different moral comparisons. The couple they meet desperate to get the money for a house say their problems are nothing compared to hers, which might be right, but their own circumstances are still pretty desperate. Hanny, meanwhile, says her experience was nothing compared to the fate of some women who don’t have a powerful Western government looking out for them, which is also right, but that doesn’t make her experience much better. In theory, Hanny’s boyfriend had the easiest time – all he had to put up with was the woman hes loves going on these missions. And dreading day after day what might happen to her. And when news comes, waiting for months on end for something to happen. Which is still something you wouldn’t wish on anyone.
The only thing that went wrong is that the actress Christina Dawson injured herself before the performance and did it on crutches. This almost worked as part of the performance – it’s not too unusual to come back from a foreign ordeal in that state – although the pre-kidnap flashback scenes looked a bit funny when she still had the crutches. Truth be told, it was only during the curtain call that I twigged that was real. I suppose I should be responsible here and tell everybody you should never put your health at risk to do a play, but well done anyway for refusing to do the sensible thing and press on. I would probably have done something just as reckless.
One bit of bad news: doesn’t seem to be much interest in taking this to any of the festival fringes. I’m confident it would do very well if it went to Edinburgh or Brighton. So if you’re one of my reader who follows this for fringe reviews, you are probably going to be out of luck. You can buy a script if you like though. That’s the next best thing.
Peterborough. One to go before London. Hurry up.
Your Ever Loving
The other half of the double bill was something created in-house from Theatre N16. written by Mark McNamara. This is based on the experiences of Paul Hill, one quarter of the Guildford Four, jailed for a bombing in the days when a confession was accepted as proof of guilt (and before society figured out the obvious reasons why relying on confessions is a bad idea). The play is largely derived from the letters that Paul Hill wrote whilst in prison, always maintaining his innocence, frequently getting up to mischief once he worked out the deterrent of loss of parole didn’t matter to him.
There was a lot of skill that went into this play. Done as a two-hander, with one man as Paul Hill and the other man as everyone else, it went through the story at a good pace. Verbatim theatre can easily drag if you don’t judiciously edit it, but this was done fine. It resists the temptation to over-sensationalise the easily sensationable bits, such as a scene towards the end where Paul Hill talks about how unrealistic movie courtroom scene are whilst a barrister drones through legal arguments in the Court of Appeal.
But for all the achievements of the play, I just couldn’t help thinking that I didn’t learn anything new from this. Thirty years ago this would have been a bold ground-breaking play. Today, when everyone agrees that what happened to the Guildford Four was bad, it’s less remarkable. Although some attempts are made to hint at the atmosphere of panic in the 1970s when justice for the bomb victims was confused with a conviction of anyone at any cost, the police and prison guards came across as crude stereotypes. What went through the minds of people on front line in a war against the IRA who hear of the fate of people like them in Ulster? Sadly, we never find out.
Still, it’s a decent play which achieve an awful lot within the constraints of two actors and a largely verbatim script. It’ll be good if Alphabetti maintains this exchange arrangement with Theatre N16, because it looks like they have a lot to offer.
Hooray. Made it, and not even past Stevanage yet. Probably lots of typos. But good job Alphabetti, keep up the good work.