Further Education

Further Education
By Pete Barrett
Directed by Pip O’Neill and Luke Ofield
Unmasked Theatre

New Writing South Best New Play Award 2019 Shortlist

Unmasked Theatre present their second NWS shortlisted show this Fringe; also a 2018 Brighton Scratch Night winner, they delivered a well-received extract at the last Sussex Playwrights event, so we’re well primed for this often very funny slice of recent history.

1985. The miners’ strike is raging, communities are in conflict and the picket lines need manning. Barrett’s play, written a few years after the picketing wars, is only now receiving its first production. Yet it feels so recent, relevant and raw – and how can all those great songs be over thirty years old?

Neil James as Frank is an everyman fish out of water with a Not Going Out vibe, a 40-something striking Liverpudlian miner dossing in a group of right-on young feminist students’ grotty cluttered flat. We’re with him in his distaste for their Mates, bras and disgusting mug-infested squalor – his Superwoman wife would never let THAT happen.

Frank’s the most complex character in the piece, a creature of contrasts – he’s an eloquent exploration of what it might be to be the man of the house, the exhausted life-risking breadwinner in an ultimately doomed job. Staring at middle age and with another kid on the way, this cause – and this fling – might be his last chance to reconnect with his youth and secure a future. And while calling out the casual unthinking sexism of the miners, all set to beat up offending colleagues, he’s still up for launching into a family-betraying affair.

As an unlikely class-hopping friendship develops between Frank and Chris Gates’ hilarious philandering tutor Jake, channelling Hugh Grant as a chap with a habit – it was apparently OK back then – there’s a subtext suggesting that even the nicest guy will fall, faced with a pretty girl young enough to be his daughter, and when the ring comes off, so does fidelity.

Jessica Smith (Emma), Bronte Sandwell (Claire) and Ella Verity (Rachel) are a great trio, delivering fresh, engaging performances as the larky flatmates. The girls don’t quite get away with it though; committed young feminists flip happily into a quick thrill with the thoughtlessness of youth, up for a fantasy bit of fun without consequences – until the reality is suddenly sitting in their house. Now we’re weighing how much we like them all with what two of them are actually up to.

Kim Wright (Melanie) and Karen Antoni (Anne), both playing weeks away from giving birth, drop the heaviness of pregnancy, slow difficult movements, responsibility personified, into this exhilarating mix. It’s a new twist, a new flavour introduced later on by wary seen-it-before Melanie and mistakenly secure Anne. We see potentially ruined lives played for farce, and it’s both funny and uncomfortable, but we never really resolve the betrayal in these relationships. It’s about Frank and his midlife crisis – and how he deals with a terrible event in a way that can only bring more pain to his family.

This show has that essential zippy, pacey feel, with naturalistic dialogue, jags of humour and jolts of surprise in the writing, and real energy and verve in ensemble playing and direction. Ofield and O’Neill’s cast bicker and bitch, blending heartfelt soul searching and an entertaining physicality.

Looking forward to the award announcements.

The Rialto til June 2

Philippa Hammond

The Geminus

… the hypnotic, woozy tempo is shattered in a fabulous bit of final violence

Blue Devil Productions

Written and directed by Ross Dinwiddy

Adapted from The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad

New Writing South Best New Play Award 2019 Shortlist

Sounds of the sea from the start and throughout the play are a constant subtle reminder that we’re aboard a merchant vessel, becalmed somewhere in the East. It’s a hot night and the Captain’s alone on deck as a mysterious fugitive swims out of the darkness …

There’s a working wheel, wreathed in sea mist. While placed at the front it sometimes obscures the actors, it’s a solid thing of wood and brass beauty that together with lit lanterns clearly set the scene. There are sails involved, so we’re probably somewhere in the nineteenth century.

John Black’s cultured young captain Hotson in pristine silk pyjamas is something of a oddity to his crew, staunchly represented by an entertaining double act, Robert Cohen as seasoned old hand Skeres and Ben Baeza as cheeky and presuming young Frizer.

Gareth Wildig is dangerously charming as fugitive Leggatt, whose erudite tale of murder is captivating and enigmatic, and the inexperienced Hotson soon falls under his spell.

Ma Gwen’s a forceful steampunk presence in a great cameo by Christine Kempell, striding on board in pursuit of her murderous escapee as a teetotal Welsh force of nature.

The most minor notes – a few overlong scene changes moving furniture about and the generally measured pace mean the play can feel just a little longer than it needs to be.

A crisis hits in the last moments as the wind picks up and the hypnotic, woozy tempo is shattered in a fabulous bit of final violence. Director and cast deliver some terrific fighting; nasty, desperate punching, wrestling and chucking themselves and each other around, as the stranger slips into the ocean and out of the tale.

The writing’s formal, showcasing its literary origins, an ancient mariner spinning his mesmerising tale, and it works – we’re as intrigued as Hotson, whose finds his true nature and command in the closing moments.

Sensitively portrayed love scenes and fleeting nudity in Blue Devil’s trademark matter of fact style.

The Rialto until the 25th May
The play transfers to London in August

Philippa Hammond

Good Grief

… balance between humour and a profound long-covered-up frozen grief

By Edwin Preece
Swallows Theatre
Directed by Sue Goble

Un-named Mother (Sue Goble) and her two grown children Sam (Sam Standen) and Becky (Gigi Liley) meet for – a celebration? A wake? A long delayed start to the natural grieving process? There’s champagne and an expensive meal out, but two people are missing. Anthony and Dad should be here, but for a long ago accident that froze the family’s emotional growth for years. Today, things will start to change.

The story of that long ago accident is told by the three characters piecing together fragmented memories, sometimes talking to us through inner thoughts and filtered memories, and sometimes to each other.

The staging’s a little static – it’s a small space with little room to manouevre, which is always a directing challenge. We begin with Mum seated, and later the family round the table on a stage at the same level as most of the audience, so it’s difficult to see the actors, which can then reduce that essential audience/actor engagement.

Preece’s writing captures that buttoned-up family habit of keeping everything pleasant, anything to avoid feeling sad. Being messy. The credible result is that the family’s grief has never been journeyed through, never dealt with.

Every word crystal clear, with a uniformly polite, measured delivery, I understood every nuance – yet didn’t quite feel that suspension of disbelief that this was happening in front of me, that the words were igniting in the characters’ minds at that moment. Several ‘breaking down’ moments could be rethought – it’s always more engaging and moving when the character controls and speaks through emotion.

There are laughs here, too – family silliness and little foibles we can all recognise and feel connected with. That balance between humour and a profound long-covered-up frozen grief strikes a chord with this full house, as the thaw begins.

Current run now ended.

Philippa Hammond


Chittenden’s writing delivers a world of unique voices

By Sam Chittenden

Different Theatre

Music by Simon Scardanelli, performed live by the cast, accompanied by Judey Bignell

Co-directed by Sam Chittenden and Katie Turner-Halliday (of Heifer productions)

Design by Delphine Du Barry

New Writing South Best New Play Award 2019 Shortlist

We’re at Sweet@The Mayo, a lush private garden, all little spaces and secret discoveries, the setting for this new piece from Sam Chittenden, her third production at this year’s Brighton Fringe.

It wasn’t always a garden – it’s on the site of the drying fields of the Mayo laundry, where generations of Brighton women lived out their working lives and shared the reality of their private lives, too. True stories of the 1950 smallpox outbreak and the first women’s mental health hospital play out here, interwoven together with songs and fictional tales of lives lived by women in the 1880s, 1900s, 20s, 50s, 70s, 90s and now.

Each actor is clad to her time, and we gradually notice they’re all subtly wearing Suffragette purple and green. This is real, raw, visceral stuff – love and friendship, childbirth and death, brutality and solidarity. Men don’t come off too well here – all drinkers, thumpers, users and controllers. There’s often a lack of love, attraction and fun when it comes to their stories of the men in their lives.

Women are in the majority today, and it’s clear the stories are resonating around the audience – the play touches on realities we may share, regardless of our time or age. Characters each have their unique voices; cultured and precise gender nonconformity (Abi McLoughlin as Doctor Helen Boyle), gutsy 50s matriarch (Jenny Rowe as Dot), committed young Suffragette (Rebecca Jones as Meg), wounded but unbeaten abuse survivor (Cerys Knighton as Ruby), menopause wisdom and humour (Kerri Hedley-Cheney sparking the laughs as Juliet), thoroughly modern explorer revealing these extraordinary ordinary tales (Chelsea Newton Mountney as Tasha) and deep warmth and raw truth (Sharon Drain as Millicent).

Chittenden’s writing delivers a world of unique voices for each actor to bring to life, in Du Barry’s billowing white setting of linen and cotton in the green, effortlessly conjuring up the world the women knew so well.

This is a terrific venue, shared with the local wildlife. It’s a joy to know I can live in a city for decades and still find places and stories new to me. Through the trees to the horizon, it’s so right that you can just see what was once Brighton’s workhouse, the shadow of what could have happened if you didn’t have the fortune to secure this heavy, taxing work. A fascinating experience, and the perfect venue. Come early to explore – be aware that there are twisting paths and different levels to negotiate as you come in, and the piece has a promenade element so you’ll stand, or sit on the grass. And remember to check out the shed, too; an art installation in its own way.

Philippa Hammond

Sweet@TheMayo 25-27 May

The Hunters of Ghost Hall

Sussex Playwrights Reviews: The Hunters of Ghost Hall

Most Curious Productions
Written and directed by Tristan Wolfe
Music by Adam House
Sweet Werks 1

We’re in the round in this small black box; black drapes, black floor, blackout. Then a torch clicks on.

The play mainly unfolds in the near dark with torches, then in the unreliable glow of an ancient generator in a possibly haunted house.

We meet a ghosthunting TV director, her maybe fake medium and a couple of treasure hunters, as they creep about this strange location, alone or in twos, each pair at first unaware of the other.

As one leaves another slips in, though just as in a farce, those changeovers do need to be simultaneous to keep the pace tight.

Torches are well used, respecting the audience’s need not to be targeted while conjuring up the TV staple of the detectives searching a house with only atmospheric torchlight. They’re at their best when actors shine up on their own or each other’s faces, creating glowing features and flickering hands in the gloom and huge ‘what was that?!’ shadows on the walls. This effect wants to dial up, as it can be difficult watching vague shapes moving in the dark.

James Bennison’s comedy background delivers the entertaining fireworks as the theatrical TV medium Zac who’s going through some interesting purloined snack-related experiences.

As AJ, Akasha Goodenough creates and sustains that essential growing sense of tension and unease throughout, a stranger in this unknown environment, her senses on high alert.

Whenever we meet Lena Hill’s Bonnie and Mel Newton’s Kit, that wary tension dips – we have less of a sense that they are in a strange, dark unknown place, as both appear physically and vocally relaxed and at ease, two friends bantering and bickering through together.

The play features the most committed use of sound we’ve encountered in any Brighton Fringe show this year. From the start, Adam House’s score delivers mood music, eerie singing, the creak of an old house settling – all the haunted house favourites. The play is scored throughout like a film soundtrack, with live thumps and bumps. At busy Fringe venues, sound can leak in from other shows (my Edinburgh death scene featured the Chariots of Fire theme from the show next door). Here, there’s a music show upstairs – but the faint singing just threads into the soundtrack and becomes part of the unsettling effect, and it’s all most effective. There’s a card on your seat if you’d like to download the soundtrack.

On a writing note, it’s not always clear what each character is looking for – perhaps time for another draft to tighten and clarify plotline, with a more definitive ending.

Having seen an extract for Sussex Playwrights in the larger space of the New Venture Theatre, it’s clear that the play would expand well into a larger site-specific location, an old house, perhaps opening out in a promenade version, that could use the discoveries that torchlight can make.

Some clever laughs and creepy moments – especially for those who’ve never liked dolls …

At Sweetwerks 20-26 May 21.15

Philippa Hammond

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Probably Unmasked Theatre’s best outing yet for its trademark full use of the Rialto Theatre space

Unmasked Theatre
Rialto Theatre

Adapted and directed by Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill

New Writing South Best New Play Award 2019 Shortlist

Tolstoy’s late novella is here adapted for the stage in a new play written and directed by Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill, and currently shortlisted for New Writing South’s Best New Play Award 2019.

A judge and his family move to a smart new home and all’s marvellous. Until a deftly-staged fall sets off a spiral down to the inevitable conclusion.

Kevin Cherry takes a commanding lead, a fussily precise control gradually stripped away as the dreary inevitability of dying begins its creep. He’s not going gently; raging, questioning and fighting as the dull debris of dying piles up around his central writhing figure.

The family are getting on with being alive, perhaps more urgently now – parties, snogging, dressing up for a posh evening out – because they know they’re helpless.

Time’s fluid – we begin and end at the end, with Ivan’s funeral and we delve back through time to his decline, back to his own childhood, then snap back to his death. The writing preserves a sense of its nineteenth century Russian origins, matched with its present day setting. At the end of life, Ivan delves into some huge solo themes, while the twenty first century life of online gaming, social media and phone-addicted teens whirls around him regardless.

Sarah Widdas is warmth and truth personified as practical wife Praskovya needing a night at the theatre in a gorgeous frock, Bronte Sandwell’s a sweet daughter Lisa flitting and flirting about, and George Todd endears as young Vasya – all’s normal in these teens’ world (apart from this dreadful thing happening in the corner), and there’s great support and range from Matt Turpin and Bradley Thomas, doubling a fleeting cast of friends and doctors.

One of the highlights of the piece is Liam Murray Scott, doubling as smarmy hearty Schwartz, practical diamond Gerasim and unlistening Doctor Jones. He’s an assured and powerful actor who makes this look easy.

Probably Unmasked Theatre’s best outing yet for its trademark full use of the Rialto Theatre space – energy and movement, in-scene set changes, speaking from the audience plus a raised spotlit dais at the back, Ivan’s stage for his death scene. He’s part of the family, yet separate and above them, blue-lit and isolated.

A couple of polishing notes – The dais sometimes meant others turned their backs on the audience to speak to Ivan, which meant we lost clarity, projection and subtext. The play’s more about those affected by death than dying itself, and if they remained looking at us we could see the truth of what was going on beneath their socially careful words as they perform the trying task of chatting to a dying man. I’d like a little more volume and articulation from some – the Rialto’s an intimate space, but still needs those voices to hit the back walls.

In the end, this was exactly how my father’s last few months happened in my family. It’s something we’ll all experience, and we have no training in how to deal with it. The programme apologises for not including a trigger warning on the promotional material. It wasn’t necessary. Audiences have always understood the value of catharsis.

Philippa Hammond
Sussex Playwrights Reviews

Tiptree: No-one Else’s Damn Secret But My Own

Rowe’s fluid writing fleets through glimpses of an extraordinary life

Written and performed by Jenny Rowe
Directed by Nicola Haydn

James Tiptree Jr was the pseudonym used by the American science fiction author Alice B Sheldon. For years this persona fitted in with the male-dominated SF world; where ‘what if … ‘ was the norm, yet including women in those worlds was not.

An actor who hooks our attention and holds it in her hands for an hour, Rowe’s a great storyteller and master of the pause where it’s most effective. Her performance is pacy and upbeat, sometimes very funny, as she transforms into the 70+ Tiptree with ageing makeup and a cigarette-roughened patrician Hepburn drawl; laconic, ironic and wry.

Poking fun at the society she came from and lived through, Alice was always a little at odds, a little bit off. An American in Africa, a girl needing protecting but not being given a gun to do it herself, a bisexual woman in a conservative world of debutantes and finishing schools, a woman in a series of men’s worlds, perhaps none more conservative than the world of American SF.

We know the horrible truth from the start, that this is Tiptree’s last hour before she joins her husband. Rowe’s fluid writing fleets through glimpses of an extraordinary life in that universal solo show agreement between performer and audience – the performer is alone, but talking to us. Whoever we are. And we’re fine with that; we’ve done this before.


Philippa Hammond
Sussex Playwrights Reviews