This, my second visit to the influential HighTide festival (now in its 9th year) saw it settled into a new home in the small, beautiful Suffolk seaside town of Aldeburgh. More usually associated with Benjamin Britten and the music festival he helped launch with partner, Peter Pears I’ve no doubt future years will see it as associated with HighTide, its drama equivalent. It offers so much for a theatre festival with an array of venues if, strangely, less sympathetic to the spoken words than HighTide’s previous home in Halesworth.
HighTide is unusual not only in its commitment to new work – something claimed by all and sundry these days – but the fact that it co-produces with so many other producing theatres all round the country from Edinburgh to Bath by way of Sheffield and Manchester, Chichester and Folkestone, London of course and even New York.
They are too in receipt of Arts Council National Portfolio funds augmented by what looks like a solid list of trusts, foundations and Friends of HighTide. So, for the moment, HighTide looks to be financially, at least, and artistically, riding high.
This year I saw three of the plays available on press day, missing out only on Anders Lustgarten’s important, prescient and humane, Lampedusa, his acclaimed play already seen during its sell-out run at Soho. An accompanying full schedule of comedy, music, readings and Face-to-Face meetings (Meera Syal, Richard Eyre, Michael Billington amongst them) are also part of the deal if you’re thinking of making a bigger thing of it than just the one-day jet-stop favoured by critics and journalists. Aldeburgh is a delightful watering hole, easy to walk around, find places to eat or just while away an hour or so on the beach-front gazing at the gulls or picking up some local fresh or smoked fish.
But back to the plays. Of the plays I saw, E V Crowe’s Brenda, proved by far the most taxing. The middle play, seen on a stifling, unusually hot September afternoon in the church hall next to the beautiful 16th church (where Benjamin Britten amongst others is buried), Brenda took us to a strange, unsettling place of nonentity and resistance to engaging with modern life. The challenge of it, however, was Caitlin McLeod’s production which started slowly, in silence and proceeded one might say, at snail’s pace for the next hour.
Silence and inaction always make for challenging theatre. But the fact that the subject of Crowe’s play and the interaction between its two characters proves so elusive and abstract certainly didn’t find favour with some. Alison O’Donnell’s `Brenda’, you see, a young Scottish woman with a tentative air is a diffuse kind of person. That is to say, beside her security guard boy-friend, Robert – a slight but busy, more than slightly menancing Jack Tarlton – Brenda `floats’. Robert appears to be preparing Brenda for an audition – a community action recording, in front of an audience – in which together they will spell out their plight; young people on low income, desperate to find a home, earn money so they can start a family. Will the community help them?
For a long while, the only `action’ really forthcoming is Robert’s fussing about with mics and cables, lights and speakers. Brenda sits passively, watching. But gradually you come – or I came – to realise that apart from economic realities, what Crowe is dealing in here is control; Robert’s control or attempt to control Brenda. Brenda’s passive resistance is, in fact a monumental affront to contemporary society’s pressure to conform, to be `a person’, to achieve something. Brenda is having none of it and at the end, Robert defeated as Brenda walks out the church hall door plunges his hands into the cables and pulls out handfuls of black goo.
Irritatingly opaque and inert, Brenda nonetheless summons up powerful emotions and constantly breaking convention and the fourth wall, creates a powerfully resonant portrait of non-acquiescence. I partly loved it, partly was exasperated by it and hugely impressed by both O’Donnell and Tarlton’s delivery of it. It transfers to The Yard in Hackney after HighTide.
Easier on one level though no less challenging from a dialogue point of view was Luke Norris’ So Here We Are, a sort of elegy to working class lads and a way of life where the high spots centre around five-a-side footie, having it off with girls and where inarticulacy is king.
The humdrum, deadening monotony of life has been a staple of British drama, in theatre and film for decades. But Norris finds yet another, original way to tell this story, one moreover that has at its centre themes to do with stunted youth, machismo, belonging and most movingly, the agonising situation of being gay in such a culture but afraid to be open about it.
Where Crowe’s Brenda is notable for its absence of words, Norris keeps the words coming, sharp, fast, overlapping and mostly, inconsequential. You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of longish speeches of which his characters are capable. Mostly they speak in monosyllables and single words. Which of course is partly the point. The non articulacy is a code. And the code of speech either makes you `one of us’, or alienates you from the pack. It also creates a culture of secrecy and where secrets can lodge until they explode in the face.
All of which makes for a rat-a-tat kind of delivery as the Essex boys, Smudge, Pidge and Pugh sit around on the sea-wall at Southend scrubbily joshing each other, post the funeral of Frankie, one of their footie comrades.
Cue probably the best opening line this year: `Well, he’s fucked up the five-a-side, en e?, says the bullying weasel faced Pidge. So Here We Are is all about the drama of place and character. But cleverly, it is also a dramatic re-wind as the context of Frankie’s demise and the sequence of events of his last day slowly, slowly comes into focus.
Spoiler alert prevents me from letting on too much more. So Here We Are was the Bruntwood 2013 award winner and moves up to the Royal Exchange post HighTide.
Steven Atkinson, HighTide’s co-founder and artistic director, directs a first-rate cast at speed and pace, appreciated by most in the audience if not always by this viewer.
Lastly came Al Smith’s Harrogate. A 20-minute walk to the Pumphouse placed us cheek by jowl beside an all-white raised platform. Played in traverse, Harrogate is not so much a tale told in flashback as, Pinter style, a tale told from differing perspectives. There is Dad and there is daughter. And there is mother. And in between there is, well, another figure, dressed like the daughter. For Smith’s Dad, like Arthur Miller’s Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge, has a problem of inappropriate attachment; of possessiveness.
Very much in the news at the moment, Harrogate interrogates and explores a father’s feelings for his daughter through triangular views. At all times the part of the daughter/substitute/mother are played by the same actress. So we get much repetition which in its layering provides us with further insights but also deliberately complicates. Who exactly is who at any one time, and who is telling the truth?
There is just enough ambiguity to make, for this viewer, almost every line hedged around in doubt as Dad checks every aspect of his daughter’s life down to following her. To others, the narrative was clearer. But like Brenda, male control and power are definitely in the frame. So too, perhaps troublingly if honestly, an attempt to rationalise such obsession in the act of ageing and the alienation felt by a spouse watching their other half changing and physically and emotionally being unable to cope with it. In the disappointment, the play seems to be saying, lie the seeds of obsession and projection onto a younger version.
Brilliantly structured as a piece of writing on Smith’s part and rivetingly performed by Nick Sidi as the controlling Dad and an astonishing Sarah Ridgeway as the daughter, assuming different personas – and ages, it’s directed by Richard Twyman, responsible for Fireworks at the Royal Court, a wonderfully judged piece earlier this year about growing up in war-torn Palestine. I hope Harrogate too finds another life. It deserves to be debated.
A world premiere by E V Crowe, (at the Church Hall, Aldeburgh, Suffolk)
Running time: 70mins without interval
Brenda: Alison O’Donnell
Robert: Jack Tarlton
Director: Caitlin McLeod
Designer: James Turner
Lighting Designer: Richard Williamson
Sound Designer: David Gregory
HighTide Festival, Sept 10-20, 2015 and thereafter at The Yard Theatre, London
So Here We Are
A world premiere by Luke Norris
(in the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh)
Running time: 90mins without interval
Kirsty: Jade Anouka
Frankie: Daniel Kendrick
Pidge: Sam Melvin
Dan: Ciarán Owens
Smudge: Dorian Jerome Simpson
Pugh: Mark Weinman
Director: Steven Atkinson
Designer: Lily Arnold
Lighting: Katharine Williams
Composer and Sound: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Movement Director: Tom Jackson Greaves
World premiere of So Here We Are by Luke Norris, Sept 10, 2015 at Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh.
A Royal Exchange Theatre and HighTide Festival Theatre co-production.
Transfers to Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, from Sept 24, 2015
A world premiere by Al Smith
(in the Pumphouse, Aldeburgh)
Him: Nick Sidi
Her: Sarah Ridgeway
Running time: 90 mins without interval
Director: Richard Twyman
Designer: Tom Piper
Lighting Designer: Natasha Chivers
Sound Designer: George Dennis
Movement Director: Jonathan Goddard
A HighTide Festival Theatre production.
First perf of Harrogate in The Pumphouse, Aldeburgh, Sept 11, 2015
Box office: 01603 598606 Mon-Sat 9.30am-20.00pm
In person: from the James Cable Room, White Lion Hotel, Aldeburgh
Sept 10-20, 2015
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Sept 2015
Two views of the beautiful interior of the Aldeburgh Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul.
E V Crowe’s Brenda was performed in the Village Hall adjacent. For more pix, see Blog page.