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.
Why does it have to SAY something? Have you come over all Michael Billington?
Why can't you interpret the action and say what you think it means?
You say over at the Whingers place that you quite liked the Handke.
The Handke play, it seems to me, refuses to SAY anything at all and yet you are presumably far happier to interpret that play.
Perhaps you patronise the playwright in this case?
I hope I’m not being patronising.
For me the Handke positively invites interpretation - offering, as you say, no actual concrete “meanings” of its own. Although that is a moot point. Actually, it does offer quite a lot of meanings.
On the other hand, Scarborough seems to begin and end with itself. That is fine. It don’t have a big problem with that. But, by the same token, other naturalistic plays (can I include Chekhov with those?) give a sense of something inexpressibly more than just what happens.
If anything, I’d have rather not drawn too many conclusions from Scarborough, since the action - which, as I’ve said, is unerringly accurate in its observations of the way in which people can behave - doesn’t really explore why. The thing I liked least in the entire play was the reason given by the teacher for their desire to have an affair: that they had spent too much time in swimming practice as a teenager and were trying to re-live their youth. It might be verbatim for all I know, and of course characters are allowed to lack self-knowledge and insight, but for some reason that particularly irritated me. Perhaps it was meant to.
Beyond that, knowing that it was originally a 45-minute piece made me wonder about the wisdom of adding the gender-swapped second half. It seemed a bit too pat in some ways, and made me wonder if it didn’t detract rather from the acuity of the first half.
I dunno. I’m glad you liked it. I’m sorry I didn’t like it as much. Hope the above makes a bit more sense of my rationale for not so doing.
It seems to me that may be the reason why Scarborough is on at the Royal Court (I'm speculating by the way) is that it actually it manages to be both incredibly European and English at the same time. The love child of Kroetz and Martin Parr.
Fiona Evans characters (much like the characters in my version of FESTEN for example) are nothing more than their actions and the action of the play refuses simplistic psychological exposition in the mouths of the characters. They simply are.
That no critic as far as I can see has so far mentioned that the fate that awaits both adult characters is one of compromised marriage with some one older is I find gob-smacking.
The refusal to view the almost exact repetition of the text as anything other than cynical laziness on the writer's part or a mere producing idea is scandalous.
After the unusual scene between the thirtysomething female and her pupil - we can consider afresh the more usual scenario of Lolita. Not on the banal psycho-sexual basis of gender difference but on the profound basis of difference between youth and age.
I think level of neglect in the reviews by Nicholas De Jongh and Michael Billington in particular is depressing.
The normally sensitive Dominic Cavendish remarked in his notice:
'What a difference a decade makes. Back in 1995, Sarah Kane violently shook the new writing scene awake with Blasted, a play that put a young woman and her older lover together in a Leeds hotel room and then let barbarism and cruelty storm in unannounced.
Now, at the same address (the Royal Court Upstairs) here's a play set in the bedroom of a Scarborough B&B in which a couple - a generation apart in age - are enjoying a "dirty weekend".
I see things differently.
In 2008 a NEW ENGLISH FEMALE PLAYWRIGHT writing flinty tough dialogue which refuses and refutes simplistic psychological interpretation and cuts right to the human core, telling her tale expressively and in a formally bold way with an uncompromising and unflinching production which is right in your face.
This work is then dismissed by largely white, middle-aged men who prefer to concentrate on sensational/not-sensational-enough content and decline to engage with what the play is actually doing.
Personally I see fuck all difference between 1995 and now myself. Perhaps the only cigarette paper of difference is that Evans prefers to make noise quietly that's all.
The play you describe/the way you describe it, sounds better than the play I felt I was watching. And, honestly, trust me, I believe I’m alert to different ways of experiencing plays, of watching them - but I find that plays do (generally) ultimately dictate the way you watch them - you establish a kind of rapport with the play which has set out its stall and presented itself to you. Some plays use this relationship to later achieve a theatrical coup through tonal/paradigm shift - like Blasted did. Others don’t. And yes, sometimes audiences (not just critics) can fail to grasp the right way of approaching a piece. Often when it’s a new form, or an experiment - Godot, The Birthday Party and Blasted are all excellent examples - Lord knows how many similar cases have been misconstrued and consigned to the slush pile of history. But usually, the very newness of approach is clear enough. To stick with the Handke as an example, the audience knows to approach the thing differently, because it is different. Scarborough, to me, felt like a lot of shows I had seen before. A well-written one, but still deeply familiar.
“That no critic as far as I can see has so far mentioned that the fate that awaits both adult characters is one of compromised marriage with some one older is I find gob-smacking.”
That, I suspect, in each case, will be a judgement call on what is and is not fair game in terms of spoiling surprises. It is a crucial revelation in the play and to give it away would surely change the experience of watching the play for anyone who had read the review. Yes, it limits discussion of that aspect of the plot, but it’s one of those insoluble problems - if you discuss the meaning too fully, you give the game away.
“The refusal to view the almost exact repetition of the text as anything other than cynical laziness on the writer's part or a mere producing idea is scandalous.”
I hope that’s not what I’ve conveyed. I think it’s an interesting and understandable choice, but one which doesn’t fully work for me.
Although I think it’s interesting that you suggest the doubling-up means that we can: “consider afresh the more usual scenario of Lolita. Not on the banal psycho-sexual basis of gender difference but on the profound basis of difference between youth and age.”
Surely by changing the genders of the two parties, what is most highlighted is the difference when it’s a boy and a girl / man and woman saying the words. Youth and age don’t differ. One critic commented to me in passing that it might have been interesting to see how the play would have done with all the combinations. Where are the male-male and female-female couples (not to mention transgendered ones)? Another interesting experiment might have been just to keep increasing the age gap between the 15-year-old and his lover. This would have asked, if anything, more interesting questions. If it was a slightly shorter piece, we could have gone up in increments of fifteen years with a 30-, 45-, and 60- year old. Alternatively, they could have experimented with different combinations of race or disability.
It’s disingenuous to claim that the swap doesn’t foreground the gender issue. Perhaps I’m being dumb, but isn’t it supposed to cast the initial scenario in a different gender-based light? I’m not sure how it alters the consideration of the age gap, without commenting on the difference between the way we see 29-year-old men and women and 15-year-old girls and boys. After all, it’s a play that could be recast almost infinitely with different results. Imagine if Darren had been played by a younger Samuel Barnett and Lauren by, oh, I dunno, Lindsay Duncan. Totally different play (and West End smash, I expect). Or if the young girl had been more fragile and the bloke more suave. The possibilities are endless. Which is fine. But I’m not sure these points relate at all to whether the plot was all it could have been.
I should point out; my review is not intended by be an especially harsh or dismissive appraisal of the piece. I am most interested in being as honest as possible about what I thought, and I hope I’ve given a sense of both the positive and less positive aspects that struck me during the play.
“…flinty tough dialogue which refuses and refutes simplistic psychological interpretation and cuts right to the human core, telling her tale expressively and in a formally bold way with an uncompromising and unflinching production which is right in your face.
“This work is then dismissed by largely white, middle-aged men who prefer to concentrate on sensational/not-sensational-enough content and decline to engage with what the play is actually doing.”
Let’s not get into the critics/genders thing. After all, Evans seems to be asking us to reconsider the way we think about gender, so let’s imagine all the reviews were written by women instead in a part two-style gender-reversal to sidestep that question. After all, after gender we can get on to sexuality, and then there’s a simple difference that can be drawn between Billington and de Jongh, as well. And I’m not sure it’s one that is necessarily especially useful. Is anyone going to argue that men don’t *get* plays by women. I mean, apart from anything else, you and Dominic Cooke are both men and you both seem to like Scarborough. Or that older people don’t like plays by younger people? Billington has pretty good form for liking plays that push his buttons by people of all ages, I’m sure.
Surely it’s fair enough, at least to some extent, to wonder if it might not be solely the problem of the critic/audience-member that the play didn’t make them see it in the way you’re suggesting it could have been experienced? Beyond this is the impenetrable matter of personal taste and the fact that nothing is universally adored or reviled. And the gaps needn’t be along gender, sexuality, racial, religious or age-related lines. Some people just like things that other people don’t.
I think the gap between what I saw and what you saw is largely one of taste. I take your points about the way it is written, although, as I say, it didn’t strike me as particularly novel - it honestly did remind me of quite a few plays I’ve seen on the Fringe. Even if I had shared your enthusiasm for what you see as innovative use of language and style, I’m still not sure that I would have been any closer to finding it as gripping, simply because the situation didn’t quite fire up my imagination in the same way. And ultimately, that’s got to be a personal thing, right?
Does anybody else agree that Rebecca Ryan felt most conscious of the crowd. During her performance I felt as if she was aware that there was an audience watching her whilst the other three actors dominated the stage. In fact 'Lauren' was so unaware that she near enough walked into one audience member. I am not saying that Rebeccac was not a good perfromer, in fact I quite liked her but she did not treat the room like it was HER stage. Also in the first part would any body else agree that Lauren and Daz seemed less intimate. Their relationship seemed more of a joke but when Beth and Aiden would kiss it seemed more intimate. I was quite confused as in the first breakup I felt that Daz was a young boy who fell in love and was heartbroken but Beth came across as a teenage girl who had a crush. I am not putting this down to her acting as I believe it was my original conception of the two sexes that made me feel this way.
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