Yes, reviews are like buses here: you wait for ages for one to come and then you get five at once. These are two fringe-size plays I saw between Brighton and Edinburgh. Both plays very different from what I expected, and not necessarily on purpose. But by accident or by design, two pleasing outcomes.
Be More Martyn
Any attempt to liken this to any other play is doomed to fail. The thing that prompted Hope Theatre to create this is the thing nobody wanted: Martyn Hett was one of the victims of the Manchester Bombings two years ago. This is verbatim theatre, and there’s no shortage of verbatim pieces uses to talk about tragedies: Motherland and The 56 immediately spring to mind. But, classics though these two are, Be More Martyn could not be more different in tone. This is the kind of tribute – because that’s essentialy what the play is – that would be described as a celebration of a life rather than the mourning of a death. You could even say “It’s what he would have wanted”, and far from being a patronising cliche, this is what make the play one of the best things I’ve seen.
The story is told from “The Frigg”, which a bar that Martyn set up in his own flat in Stockport (reason for name unknown). So we are told, parties at The Frigg were wild, as were the many madcap trips to Manchester. But according to the accounts of these eight friends, there was more to Martyn than a party animal – he had a reputation for picking up with waifs and strays with few friends of their own and bringing them into his group.
Perhaps the best example of this being what Martyn wanted was the subject of being a champion of LGBT rights, according the papers after his death. That’s not quite the way his friends saw it – he was more someone who didn’t care what anyone thought. Homophobia gets a mention, but only an incidental one, where an encounter with a couple of thugs is responded to with Martyn winding when up, possibly oblivious to the danger – but it’s precisely this attitude of not giving a damn that gives his other gay friends the courage to be more open themselves, not to mention emboldening all his friends to be themselves. This only gets a small mention, but that is done perfectly: too important to leave out, not made to dominate the play, and told in the way that shows Martyn being Martyn.
But how do you bring in the bit about his death into a celebration of his life? The answer, again, is to do what Martyn would have wanted. As the end of the play approaches, we hear some of the story about how a few of his friends heard the news. But most of the time, it’s incidental to another subject. Martyn was a superfan of numerous female pop stars and all things Coronation Street. One moment they talk his favourite icons and the next moment they’re talking about these pop stars and actors turning up to his funeral. Eurovision night was a party night Martyn took very seriously (with a very carefully picked audience excluding anyone caught being snarky or showing insufficient enthusiasm). After the bombing, Eurovision night became the night to commemorate him.
The biggest surprise of all is that a play centred around the worst tragedy to hit Manchester this century was, for almost all of it, filled with laughs. This tour has now finished but Hope Theatre are surely not done with this yet. If and when it tours again, I do advise, given the choice, you pick the full-length version over the shortened version performed at fringes, because there isn’t a weak moment in the script. There will probably never be another play like this one, but take up whatever chance you have to see this while you can.
Down to Zero
I find myself in a unusual position with this review. Coracle billed this play as giving a voice to older women, and one theme that was heavily publicised was going through the menopause. I am told that a lot of women in the audience nodded and related to this, but the problem with relying solely on something that a section of the audience will relate to is leaving nothing to interest everyone else. Which is fine if that’s what you want to write – but it’s usually better if you can make the play work on more than one level, so that if one theme doesn’t grab your interest, another one will. And I don’t know whether done by accident or by design, but that’s what what writer Lizi Patch has done. Because as well as a commentary on what it’s like to be an older woman, it’s also the story of an emerging relationship that may or may not become an abusive one.
The ambiguity is important. There are plenty of plays that show why domestic violence is bad. Lately people have worked out that relationships can be abusive without being violent. But we see very little on stage examining how a relationship gets to that point in the first place. Steph (Arabella Arnott, writer of another Coracle play Overdue) is turning 50 and her new partner Sam is driving her to a birthday surprise, but from the opening scene there’s a sign something isn’t quite right. They are singing along to a their favourite song, but Sam gently corrects her to not sing until her correct point in the song. That’s not an isolated act of pedanticism, but the first in a series of little things of a perfect weekend exactly the way Sam wants it. Sam also gets a little too paranoid over who Steph is in contact with, such as the father of her child – to the point where, it seems, he’s moderating his happy birthday text message to avoid undue suspicion.
So why is Steph – someone clearly capable and intelligent – in this relationship? Because, quite simply, most of the time it is a loving relationship of two people who click so easily, both inside and outside the bedroom. But, alas, things are already coming to a head. Steph has kept secrets from Sam that would have been out in the open in a healthier relationship, but some of those secrets are coming to light, pushing the mutual distrust further. Until later tonight, a secret from long ago will emerge. That is a story in its own right, but this will culminate in a make or break moment for Steph and Sam. There are really three ways this could go – Sam could realise his mistakes and turn things round, he may double down and things will get worse, or Steph will cut her losses and end it before it gets to that. As the play draws to a close, it looks like one path is chosen for her – and then, and the dying seconds, a cleverly-timed final twist throws the future wide open again.
Apologies if I’ve picked up a completely different message from what the play is meant to give – but that doesn’t really matter. Whether this is a deliberate secondary plot thread or entirely unintentional, the more ways there are to draw people into the story, the better. If Down to Zero appeals to me and perhaps others in a different way to what was planned, I hope that Coracle see this as a good thing. The more, merrier as they say.
Down to Zero runs until the 29th June at Alphabetti Theatre. All tickets Pay What You Feel.
Update: Very interesting response from Coracle on Twitter. The first half of the response (also stated by the writer) is that the inclusion of this theme as an attention-grabber was intentional:
You pick up on a couple of (not accidental) themes here: the nature of the central relationship in the play …
But the second half is the really good point:
… and that presenting work by or “about” older women often leads to an assumption that it is also only *for* older women. We’re glad you saw the wider appeal.
That is something that could just as easily apply for any other group – how do you separate “about” and “for”? And that leaves us on an interesting point for discussion that I’m sure will be coming back sooner rather than later.