HARROGATE and BRENDA 2 plays at Hightide Festival, Aldeburgh

Human beings sometimes – disastrously – get erotically fixated on one phase of their sexual history. In the case of Patrick (Nick Sidi) it is a teenage moment. He met and adored his wife when she was fourteen or fifteen; she is now a confident, busy, sharp-tongued doctor, but their daughter looks dangerously like that young love, and he can’t keep his mind off her. Not his hands, he’s done nothing (we think..). But he makes a prostitute dress in the daughter’s current school uniform, talk to him about GCSEs, her boyfriend Adam and schoolfriend Carly, and drink Bailey’s while promising not to tell her mother.
In the first act we find him conversing with that substitute, telling her off for wearing make-up, showing the letters she wrote when she was eight. There is a shrill tightness and controlling authority in his manner, which makes us uneasy; the girl’s teenage mannerisms are perfect, though, so it is perhaps slightly too late that we work out that this is not a real daughter. That creates a confusion in an innocent audience, because since she doesn’t know the flat well, I thought for a while that he was a divorcee access-Dad.
In the second act – out of school uniform, casual in tracky bottoms and cheekier towards him – we see her as the real daughter; school anecdotes are at first scornfully casual, later comes a revelation about the mother and a tormented account of a crisis in school. In the third act she’s the mother, striding in from work and being asked by Mr Creepy for a piece of role -play, of which which she abruptly and rather tardily realizes the significance.
The Hightide festival is known for sharp, risky new writing and has had some magnificent successes; Al Smith’s taut, troubling 70-minute play in the Pumphouse deserves (and has not yet got) a London transfer, though with a few adjustments I could absolutely see it in the National’s Temporary Theatre. The dialogue is brilliant, the father’s edginess and bossy control with the fake daughter, easier, tricky closeness with the real one are well judged, as is the riskiness of his colloquy with the impatient, doctorly professional wife in thie last section.
Richard Twyman directs , with some startling touches like the man’s sudden sense of electric shocks through the furniture (it’s set in blank whiteness). And the two actors are remarkable: particularly Sarah Ridgeway, who plays all three versions of the object of desire, convincingly both as teenager and mother. It is a stunning performance, and stays with me still. In the central section there is a searing breakdown moment when she admits her loss both of virginity and of her boyfriend (in Harrogate, hence the title) and more painfully the collapse of an over-teased male teacher by her and her friend. This sub-theme – of the power of teenage girls and their inability to understand its dangers – dovetails really interestingly with the father’s obsession.
Ridgeway, in proper teen style, is roaming round the stage eating Hula-Hops at this point, and in the show I saw she nearly choked. I am told later that it wasn’t planned, but at the time I honestly thought it was part of the distress, and rather brilliant. What a trouper. And I now suddenly remember how glorious she was as Eva in James Dacre’s The Accrington Pals, a few years back in Manchester. Right onto my favourites list, this lady.

Up the road, in a Church Hall (which makes it very site-specific) E.V.Crowe’s BRENDA showcases another good young actress, Alison O’Donnell, in another two hander alongside Jack Tarlton. But I can’t enthuse about the play, a gruelling business of long silences, moody wanderings around, and much fiddling with microphones and cables in the conceit that the pair are about to do some kind of public speech to their Scottish community about her difficulty finding a job.
The first fifteen minutes has the lights on us and them – or just her – roaming in gloom at the end; there’s a brief baffling bit of dialogue about someone having a “ball of consciousness”. Gradually we gather that the man wants Brenda to say her name and assert herself as an individual, but that she can’t because poverty and joblessness have deprived her of any sense of identity. “I am not a person”. It is fifty minutes in before we get this point. Which is a good and topical one; and O”Donnell , in her long wordless passages, body language and face, expresses a sadness and bafflement and passive suicidality which, in a better play, would serve the message well.
But the dearth of drama, the arrogant moody slowness of it, mainly made me think that it was not entirely a good thing when serious theatre audiences developed their present level of attentive, respectful reverence and an attitude of “Better not yawn or fidget, it might be the new Beckett”. It isn’t. A few walkouts and yawns would ginger up the makers of plays like this no end. And the psychological disintegration of the recession’s rejects is too important a theme to be made boring. But what do I know? This one does have a transfer booked, to the Yard Theatre in London.

rating: HARROGATE three   3 Meece Rating
BRENDA two  2 meece rating


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