June 2019 meeting

Sussex Playwrights Summer Party: ‘Achievements’

The Fringe is nearly over for another year – time to gather and talk about what we saw, performed and reviewed over a month of theatre, performance, artists, open houses, music, comedy, dance …

We also featured a theme of writing on film, and we focussed on the various film productions that are happening at the moment and some that have been to Cannes this year.

Special guest producer/director Howard J Ford introducing his new family film Adventure Boyz


Special guest Justin Hayward discussing the success of the new film script Z.APP which he is developing in collaboration with screenwriter James Alexander Allen


ritten, directed and performed by Lauren Varnfield
Pretty Villain Productions

‘I was a normal human being for 18 years before I met Ian’

It’s a full house tonight. That peroxide bob and sullen shadowed glare mugshot is already here live on stage, as we walk in, and we reckon we know this story, told in a tight, edgy forty-five minutes.

But Varnfield’s is a seemingly impossible achievement – research, writing and performance altering the way we’ve always seen Myra the monster.

These days we understand more of the lasting effects of physical and emotional abuse on the developing child and adolescent brain. Details of Myra’s grim childhood and teenage infatuation with the mesmerising psychopath Brady suggest that today, coercive control might actually be a credible defence.

A visit from the police, handcuffs, a holding cell – we don’t learn how they were caught, it’s irrelevant and this isn’t the police story.

Time passes via headlines; politics, social history, public events all stream by while Myra is incarcerated. It’s a great use of projection to create a sense of wasted decades.

The play flickers between scenes, backwards and forwards in time, eloquently showing how the past is always with us. Varnfield’s swiftly shifting performance is superb; brittle young girl, constantly on high alert, confusing excitement, arousal and terror til she can’t tell one from the other, contrasts the ageing imprisoned Myra, still, hunched, the voice low, slow and weary.

So was she really the changed, kindly woman Longford portrayed? We’re left with our own conclusions, guided by the letter from a mother begging for the peace that the truth might have offered.

The final moments are chilling; a video journey along the long, lonely road under boiling clouds up onto the Moor.

Rialto Theatre to June 1st
Philippa Hammond

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