HighTide Festival, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, UK — overview

There is significantly to admire in the four dramas staged by this festival for emerging playwrights

Luke Norris's 'So Here We Are'©Nobby Clark

Luke Norris’s ‘So Here We Are’

Now in its ninth year, HighTide Festival has grow to be an important platform for “emerging” — and a lot more emerged — British playwrights. This year the organisation has made and co-developed 4 plays for its 10-day event, whose programme also functions script readings, comedy and music shows, talks and events. The festival has moved from Halesworth to the pretty seaside town of Aldeburgh, exactly where venues variety from the large Jubilee Hall (original house of the Aldeburgh Music Festival established by Benjamin Britten in 1948) to a tiny Victorian pumphouse.

Louise Mai Newberry and Steven Elder in 'Lampedusa'©Nobby Clark

Louise Mai Newberry and Steven Elder in ‘Lampedusa’

Lampedusa, a searing play about migration and immigration by Anders Lustgarten, is staged in a dome-shaped tent on Aldeburgh beach. It flaps in the wind and seagulls cry as out-of-operate fisherman Stefano (Steven Elder) describes his job as a coastguard hauling dead bodies from the sea. The small Italian island of the title is struggling to accommodate the refugees arriving in teetering boats, but a lot of do not make it. Stefano’s story is told alongside that of Denise (Louise Mai Newberry), a spiky payday loan collector in Yorkshire struggling with racist insults from clientele (she’s half Chinese) and the threat of her mother’s disability advantage getting withdrawn.

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Lustgarten is an activist as effectively as a writer and at occasions the play guidelines into polemic, but the two stories work beautifully together, and the finale is practically nothing short of heart-rending. Lampedusa was very first performed at London’s Soho Theatre earlier this year to fantastic acclaim (like 4 stars from the FT) and transfers to the Unity Theatre in Liverpool this month. As Europe’s refugee crisis worsens, it feels much more urgent than ever.

Al Smith’s Harrogate, premiering at HighTide, is yet another intense two-hander. A fraught father-daughter connection unfolds over 3 acts, with Nick Sidi playing the father in each and every whilst Sarah Ridgeway shifts roles subtly as factors progress (to say any far more would reveal the twist). He wants to manage his teenage daughter, doling out money but only for the “right” footwear or a particular telephone. Like a lot of parents, he can’t assist correcting her grammar, but his frequent reminders of what he has paid for, and what she owes him, become a nervous tic: a sign that one thing is not correct.

Sarah Ridgeway in 'Harrogate'©Nobby Clark

Sarah Ridgeway in ‘Harrogate’

In this family, relationships are performed as a series of tense transactions by which each party tries to satisfy desires they can not very admit to. They play games with each other just as Harrogate plays games with its audience, setting up and then confounding our expectations. On a higher traverse stage, set designer Tom Piper’s empty white apartment feels as stark and sterile as the hospital where the mother functions: it is as though her family is being presented up for examination. Smith’s writing is punchy, sometimes bruising, and the performances — specifically Ridgeway’s — are compelling.

Repressed sexuality is also a theme of Luke Norris’s new play So Here We Are, which transfers to Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre later this month. Right after Frankie’s funeral, four of his friends — his 5-a-side-football teammates — are waiting for a lift property. Conversation slips from boyish banter to cutting jibes and pangs of grief. These are friendships begun in childhood, marked by shared experience and deep understanding but also, now, by distance amongst the twentysomethings. And a question hangs more than the play: was Frankie’s death genuinely an accident? The second half shows us the days preceding it, the lies and longing of a young man adrift.

Norris’s dialogue is razor sharp, and his portrayal of male friendships in a functioning-class Essex town feels spot on. The cast is exceptional and Steven Atkinson’s direction sensitive, varying the tempo nicely and drawing out the black humour. But the second half is less convincing, the explanation for Frankie’s death also neat and his character too sketchily drawn. The very first half shows Norris at his best, peppered with witty a single-liners and underscored by a poignant sense of loss, the friends mourning Frankie, themselves and a childhood all of a sudden ended.

E.V. Crowe’s Brenda, also, explores shifting identity. “I’m not a individual,” the eponymous young lady (Alison O’Donnell) tells her loving, worried boyfriend (Jack Tarlton). Struggling to meet their rent, the couple prepare to address a neighborhood action group who may be in a position to help. But for Brenda, even saying her name is a challenge. Marked by extended silences and surreal imagery, Brenda plays bold games with reality and theatricality, but ultimately fails to convince. Who is Brenda and what occurred to her? We in no way find out. Perhaps that’s the point, but someone who thinks she’s not a particular person need to nevertheless really feel like a character.

To September 20, hightide.org.uk

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Section: Arts