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26 May 2010

Dirty weekend

Our theatre blogger is surprised, then baffled, and finally bored at the Brighton Festival.

By Gina Allum

Brighton: a byword for the dirty weekend. Even my B&B offered a “love hamper” alongside the usual extras. The first show I saw at this year’s Brighton Festival was stamped through with the town’s imprint like a stick of rock: Animalink’s Marine Parade exposes the goings-on behind the stucco façades and puts the seamy into the seaside. Named after the seafront road, the show uses “the shittest hotel in the world” as the site for a parade of transients, all variously doomed in love.

Written by the playwright Simon Stephens and Mark Eitzel of the band American Music Club, it is almost anti-musical in feel. Appropriately for a peek at Brighton’s undergarments, Tom Hadley’s set in the cavernous Old Market leaves the actors with nowhere to hide and the lineaments of theatre at work exposed. Peeling wallpaper, of the kind last seen in Pat Butcher’s gaff, reveals pinkish plaster; bits of ply and an old door are propped against the back wall. Spectators inhabit much the same space as performers, who are sometimes garishly lit and sometimes leach out of the shadows — by turns over- and underexposed, like a collection of holiday snaps.

The stage is a slipway out into the audience, surrounded by a margin of pebbles, so the characters are literally (and littorally) washed up. You can almost smell the briny main. But life’s no beach. The hotel manager (Lee Ross) is eaten up with sadness at the imminent departure of his cleaner (Kate O’Flynn); other couples come to briefly reunite, to embark on an ill-fated liaison, or to break up: “In this town, you can always feel a farewell.”

The low-key, repetitive swell of the music is of a piece with the elegiac mood. There are no show-stoppers here: the singing has a sharp purity, which is a welcome antidote to the pneumatic coloratura of most musicals. Only right at the end does Ross allow himself a moment of grandstanding, and it’s all the sweeter for that.

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By definition, this show is a sequence of snapshots, some of which grab our attention more than others. The deliberate exposure of the actors, who appear unplugged and unsupported, can occasionally verge on the excruciating. But this is cleverly tempered by some beautifully judged comic performances and lyrics of tart poignancy. The director Jo McInnes’s stated aim is to “create decent new work that you don’t mind sitting through”. Modest aims, amply achieved.


On to the next show, by the Argentinian writer-director Daniel Veronese. Women Dreamt Horses is, appropriately enough, staged within Brighton’s Dome, which was originally constructed as a mighty stable block for the Royal Pavilion. The play is a companion piece to his reworking of Uncle Vanya, and I can only imagine that it suffers from being wrenched from its twin and viewed as a stand-alone piece. You know you’re in trouble when two professors have to use thousands of words to interpret the work for you in the programme.

The performance was surtitled, so it was a case of either following the pell-mell flow of language or watching the action, but rarely both. This was a pity, as when I watched the actors, in their suffocating little doll’s-house set, there was no doubting the mood of fetid desperation, or the violent intensity of their collision. But I was too busy wrestling with all that Lawrentian horse-dream symbolism, and missed the fire beneath. I suspect that somewhere between the surtitles and the action, I missed the point.

From missing the point to the utterly pointless: my final stop was at the Sallis Benney Theatre for the German company Rimini Protokoll’s Best Before. This is theatre conceived as a multiplayer video game, in which each member of the audience is invited to make personal, social and political decisions using a console. Non-actors, rebranded as “experts in daily life”, curate the experience. But as anyone who has tried to hold a conversation with a gamer knows, it is difficult to toggle, as it were, between the game and reality, and consequently the real people bored me almost as much as the game itself.

It’s likely that proficient gamers, used to the sophistications of CoD 6 or Second Life, would find the simulated city of “Bestworld” monumentally crude. Non-gamers are quickly reminded exactly why we are non-gamers. This is not the future of gaming, and it’s certainly not the future of theatre. Best avoided.

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