Transferring to the Royal Court after making a big splash on the Fringe in Edinburgh last year, Fiona Evans’s Scarborough has doubled its length in transit. Now her meticulously detailed, ultra-realist depiction of a ‘dirty weekend’ shared by a PE teacher in her late twenties and her nearly-sixteen-year-old lover has acquired a transgendered second half.
Now, rather than a pithy 45-minute show, audiences are given the whole thing twice. It’s a shame that Evans didn’t opt for the Beckett in-joke option and conclude the script with “Repeat Scarborough”. As it is the full text is a shameless exercise in Copy and Paste with some additional Find and Replace action on the genders and names. It’s easy enough to see why someone thought this was a good idea. A lot of the original reviews made much of the fact that the whole thing might have seemed very different if the play was about a male teacher and an initially under-age pupil. Now we can see for ourselves.
In many ways, Evans’s original play is an impressive bit of work. The dialogue is well-observed and the characters - the infatuated but frightened teacher and her puppyish, adoring young lover - are psychologically spot-on. The play’s narrative, meanwhile, is so instantly credible that it could be a verbatim transcript of any love affair unraveling due to external pressures. The problem is that it doesn’t really do a lot more than that. It is nicely structured, there are some good jokes and the writing is first-class in places, but it doesn’t really say anything.
Deborah Bruce’s revival of her Edinburgh production is greatly aided by set designer Jo Newberry’s realisation of the original concept - that the audience are actually in the hotel room with the two couples. In Edinburgh, this was achieved by wallpapering a small Assembly Rooms office and sticking a bed in it. Here Newberry has built the whole shebang inside the Upstairs space. As a result, the action takes place right in our faces (amusing, therefore, to be sat next to Aleks Sierz after the interval). As such the production makes enormous demands on its actors. There is no room for stagey-ness; it is a tour-de-force in naturalist brilliance. Holly Atkins as the first teacher and Jack O’Connell as her young lover are quite brilliant, perfectly capturing the exact blend of cockiness, nerves, showing off and sheer sexual vertigo. As such, it hardly matters from moment to moment that the play isn’t really saying very much. It is fascinating enough just watching the action unfold.
This is less the case as the script returns to the start, and the parallels and interstices begin to reveal themselves and start bouncing off one another. It seems likely that the original production of Scarborough never anticipated a gender-swapped twin - and so there are occasional “typically male” traits in the younger party - liking football and being thrilled by PSPs - that jangle slightly when it’s a girl, but only slightly. There is also the irritating fact that a final black-as-pitch ironic pay-off only works in the first half. More interesting is the way in which the lines work when played by a member of the opposite sex. Partially this is down to casting - pitting Daniel Mays’s teacher against Rebecca Ryan (most famous for her long-running part as Debbie Gallagher in C4’s Shameless) seems downright unfair. Mays has made a career of playing childish nutcases, and to an extent, he remains strangely boyish here. Ryan, by contrast, comes across as tough and resilient - a complete contrast to the heart-on-sleeve vulnerability of O’Connell’s male young lover in part one. If anything, this is the biggest surprise of the evening. Bruce’s direction of the two parts both present men as perpetually in need of mothering. Mays’s teacher seems far more broken by the end of the piece than his female counterpart, who seems to have broken the heart of her young man. In each, it seems that it is the men who are in need of sympathy and the women who have some control over their destinies.