HighTide Festival 2015

HighTide Festival Aldeburgh Suffolk Sept 2015 So Here We Are by Luke Norris Director/Steven Atkinson Designer/Lily Arnold Lighting Designer/Katharine Williams Kirsty / Jade Anouka Frankie / Daniel Kendrick Dan / Ciaran Owens Smudge / Dorian Jerome Simpson Pugh / Mark Weinman Pidge / Sam Melvin ©NOBBY CLARK +44(0)7941-515770 +44(0)20-7274-2105 nobby@nobbyclark.co.uk

Originally written for Exeunt.

What happens when the person you are turns out not to be the person you want to be – or the person you feel you should be? The three new plays premiering as part of this year’s relocated HighTide Festival all grapple with versions of this same question. Desire, identity and ambition are recurring themes, as is the very idea of performance: the selves we perform for others, and what might lie beneath.

The shingle and seagull cries of HighTide’s new home in Aldeburgh are an apt backdrop for Luke Norris’s latest play So Here We Are, a portrait of grief and disappointment beneath the slate skies and glaring coloured bulbs of Southend. Steven Atkinson’s production opens with four men staring out at the audience, cans of Stella in hand, their long silence as hard-edged as Lily Arnold’s pointedly masculine design of concrete and shipping containers. They don’t know what to say.

They’re mourning the death of Frankie, childhood friend and missing member of their five-a-side team. When they do find words, they talk awkwardly around the gaping black hole of their grief, gags and insults thrown around as aggressive tokens of affection. Norris’s dialogue is brilliant at capturing the everyday rhythms and evasions of speech, particularly between men who would rather crack jokes than confront their emotions. “People need a laugh,” reasons laddish Pidge, but not all of his mates agree. Then there’s a question, tentatively aired, about the nature of Frankie’s death. Was it really an accident?

In the second half, flashing back to the last hours of Frankie’s life, the clues and doubts planted in the first begin to take seed. We see Frankie stuck, restricted to a path he never meant to set out on. “What’s the point?” he asks. There’s no answer. It’s a very ordinary tragedy, of a life confined by wrong decisions and the inflexible expectations of what makes up a “normal” life: wife, mortgage, kids. As the future ghosts the present, watching becomes an exercise in connecting dots. The picture that emerges, though, is disappointingly neat, going needlessly far in its explanations and losing some of the simple impact of the first act. Resolution blunts loss and rage.

Up the road and away from the beach, the eponymous protagonist of BRENDA is also questioning the point of it all. Created by writer E V Crowe and director Caitlin McLeod, this is a real curiosity of a show, as frustrating as it is intriguing. Cannily staged in a local church hall, the piece finds down on their luck couple Brenda (Alison O’Donnell) and Robert (Jack Tarlton) about to make a plea to their community for help. Only before she can introduce herself to others, Brenda needs convincing that she’s even a person at all.

It’s a strange, offbeat watch. Crowe and McLeod stretch insistently at pauses, testing how long it’s possible to stage silent entrances, exits and absences. As they haphazardly rehearse their presentation, O’Donnell and Tarlton move among the audience, talking repeatedly about community while very deliberately ignoring the community of spectators right there in front of them. The fourth wall isn’t exactly broken, but these theatre-makers know how to prod it. Theatricality and the art of performance are central and persistent concerns.

But it’s never quite clear to what ends. With her repeated, insistent statement “I’m not a person”, Brenda’s unnervingly extreme position hints at the rather more ordinary ways in which we all perform coherent selves. There are also distant echoes of government and media rhetoric, insidiously undermining the personhood of those who don’t fit into the “aspiration nation”, but this is never more than a faint resonance. The disturbing final moments suggest something dark yet undiagnosed underneath the play’s slippery surface; what it might be is anyone’s guess.

Even more unsettling than the closing image of BRENDA is the final and most impressive premiere of the festival, Al Smith’s haunting Harrogate. As staged by Richard Twyman, it’s nightmarishly uncanny, its triptych of scenes worming their way further and further into the mind and remaining there in a stubborn tangle. It’s a play of jolts, each the theatrical equivalent of that feeling of missing a step in the moments between waking and sleeping. A scenario suddenly flips, leaving us queasily reeling.

Put simply, Harrogate is an exploration of a father’s uneasy infatuation with his teenage daughter, but with none of the sensation you might expect. Nick Sidi as the middle-aged man struggling with his daughter’s nascent sexuality is a complex and conflicted character, torn agonisingly between nostalgia and desire. He longs for the partner he once had in his youth, rather than the spouse he now shares his life with, while beginning to see the child they have created together from a new and disturbing perspective.

The excellent Sarah Ridgeway is wife, daughter and fantasy – sometimes in separate scenes, sometimes not. In each of the play’s three sections, she appears in a slightly different guise, but casting, text and staging all encourage slippages. From the moment the show first catches us off balance, we can never be entirely sure what we’re watching, while echoes and repetitions reverberate between scenes. It’s disquieting, but never wilfully taboo-busting – quite a feat, given the subject matter.

“What if we’re all paper thin and painted over?” asks the daughter at one point in Harrogate. It’s a description that might fit any of the fragile characters in these three plays, from the men dodging their emotions in So Here We Are to the non-person at the centre of BRENDA. And it’s a fitting coincidence that in the year HighTide reinvents itself, creating a real festival atmosphere as it spreads across the ridiculously picturesque seaside town of Aldeburgh, its programme is also interrogating notions of identity.

Photo: Nobby Clark.

Peddling, Arcola Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Harry Melling has an ear for the poetic and an eye for the gritty. His debut play has a little of both. It opens with him swinging from a lamppost, body straining upwards while coloured lights pulse around him. A moment later, he’s on the ground and in the dirt, gathering up the detritus of the night before. These two images capture in miniature the existence of Melling’s nineteen-year-old door-to-door salesman: a boy reaching upwards but forever pushed down. 

Peddling is a slippery, shimmering thing, its wordy, meandering text requiring concentration but rewarding the attention it demands. There are moments when both rhythm and language are briefly reminiscent of Kate Tempest, with that same delicate skill of spinning lyricism from the urban and everyday. Melling’s pedlar boy, a young offender set to work hawking j-cloths and loo rolls (“life’s essentials”), could be a brand new ancient; a trampled god of 21st-century London, flinging poetry and unexpected wisdom into the unheeding night air.

Inside the gauze walls of Lily Arnold’s set, the action of Peddling appears hazy, as if trapped behind the gloom and smog and anonymity of a city seething with people. Traipsing through London with his wares – “professional doorstep-hopping” – Melling’s protagonist bears witness to a stratified urban landscape, where the cosy, affluent households of Hampstead and Muswell Hill sit in stark contrast to those who come knocking on their doors. For all the fancy postcodes he names – those telling little combinations of letters and numbers, freighted with social significance – in Steven Atkinson’s production the Boy (he’s never named) stamps in circles around the same sorry patch of earth. Round and round.

In one of those comfortable houses with its comfortable postcode, the Boy comes across a ghost in the form of a woman in the form of a social worker. She doesn’t recognise him, but he recognises her. This sudden, destabilising encounter offers opportunity for destruction, answers and redemption, with the Boy seeking out a little of each. Melling has us follow him as night melts into day and day melts into night, tracing the winding path he takes on the search to understand his past, his present and his future.

What Melling is strongest on is the sheer, crippling indignity of not being recognised as a fellow human being. His protagonist is denied a name and a place to lay his head, cast out onto the uncaring streets with just a badge on his chest and a box of items for sale. His life is reduced to transactions. He knocks on doors. He sells dishcloths and buys fags. He receives the sum of his life in a box full of papers, thrust into his arms with the words “this is you”. Just a series of notes and records, the traces of his long exchange from hand to hand, institution to institution; “a long list of yesterdays”. When he begs for his name to be acknowledged, crying “I am something made of flesh and blood”, it rings out with rage and desperation.

Elsewhere, though, Peddling can be a little heavy-handed with both its points and its symbolism. When we get a glimpse of the Boy’s childhood, the loss-stained memory of innocence feels all too familiar, recalling a trope seen many times before. A long interlude describing a dream, meanwhile, shows the strain of reaching for profundity in a way that the rest of the play doesn’t need to, leading the attention to drift. The real poetry here is in the pedestrian, its power generated by a distinctly and devastatingly everyday despair. And through it all Melling’s restless, intermittently explosive protagonist prowls like a caged thing, stamping down the dirt and blinking up at a city sky that has swallowed all the stars – “a punishment for not taking good enough / care of one another”.

Bottleneck, Pleasance Courtyard

Originally written for Exeunt.

Greg is almost fifteen, almost a man. For him, manhood means a moustache and a swagger; it means John McClane in Die Hard, not taking shit from anyone. It’s nearly his birthday, and despite a lack of cash and the best efforts of his dad, he’s going to find a way to watch the Liverpool match. The world, full of girls and footie and best mates, is out there waiting for him. But sometimes the experiences that really mark the transition from youth to adulthood are also the experiences that scar for life.

Luke Barnes’ latest play is packaged as coming-of-age tale, but unwraps into something far more devastating and complex. The writing is nuanced and intelligent enough to keep its devices hidden and its direction obscured, until the destination suddenly appears on the horizon with gut-ripping inevitability. Without undoing that nuance, it is enough to say that its shattering denouement treads familiar ground, walking along a recognisable narrative with unblinking new insight. In its careful use of history, the piece can rely on the structure of the audience’s collective knowledge to hold its fragments together, while simultaneously smashing that scaffold apart.

Unlike other pieces that insist on reopening old wounds, Bottleneck feels urgent, fresh, full of rage. This is partly down to Barnes’ razor-sharp writing and partly down to a blistering performance from James Cooney, whose every coiled muscle seems to hum with barely controlled aggression. He is constantly hopping from leg to leg, never still, channelling the nimble footwork of Greg’s red-shirted heroes. Resisting any idea of the solo show as static, Steven Atkinson’s direction is ever moving, ever generating and radiating energy.

In this production’s appropriately bare presentation, the monologue is played out in an empty performance space below two glaring floodlights, which alternately flicker, die and burst blindingly into life. As well as effectively conjuring the space of the sport with which Greg so closely identifies, the stark quality of this lighting has the effect of the laboratory microscope, an unforgiving illumination under which this tortured specimen struggles and squirms.

As microscopic as Barnes’ focus appears, however, this muscular piece is not limited in its ambition to the singular narrative of its protagonist. Greg, as intensely drawn as he is, emerges as just one symptom of a wider problem. As youthful optimism becomes steadily jaded, the creaking escalator of social mobility shudders to a halt and Greg’s story becomes yet another instance of a life being determined by the inescapability of birth. If you come from the wrong place, this furious snarl of a play argues, then you’re fucked.

Photo: Bill Knight