Sunday, 15 September 2013

Theatre review: Fishskin Trousers

Things are looking pretty back-to-basics at the Finborough, with a black box stage and three almost-motionless actors for Elizabeth Kuti's take on rural mythology, Fishskin Trousers. The poster design for this premiere production evokes the Green Man of many old English myths, but this would probably be more of a bluey-green man, as he comes not from the forests but the sea. The location is the Suffolk fishing village of Orford, but the time varies: We meet Mab (Jessica Carroll) in 1173, a time when any kind of unusual behaviour could see her branded a witch. And Mab's behaviour towards the village's newest resident certainly differs from everyone else's: The fishing nets have dragged up a web-footed man, The Wild Man of Orford, who seems unable to speak, and whom the villagers have dubbed a merman and tied up in the church. Mab, though, wants to befriend the creature and perhaps even set him free.

At the same place in 1973, Australian postgraduate Ben (Brett Brown) is assisting in a Cold War radar-monitoring programme when he starts to believe his equipment is picking up the screams of the Wild Man of Orford. And in 2003 Mog (Eva Traynor) returns to the place of her birth to decide whether or not to abort the disabled child she's carrying.

Director Robert Price keeps things simple, paring everything back to just the three actors' performances and making for a straightforward piece of storytelling theatre. There's a nice degree of variety in their monologues, which come in lengthy chunks: Carroll giving Mab a strong local dialect and an air of defiance; the archaic Suffolk accent seems to have a hint of Australian in it, which links up to Brown's Ben with his starry-eyed enthusiasm with a hint of desperation behind it; and Traynor's well-spoken Mog is the most openly despairing of the three.

This is rather a bleak little piece but with hope lurking round the corner. Aside from his main studies Ben is enthusiastic about new theories on time, and although Kuti doesn't quite reach Constellations levels of marrying abstract scientific theory with her story construction, there is a pleasing parallel between Ben's balloon-shaped time where the past and present exist simultaneously, and the way some of the gently supernatural story's threads intertwine. With any play structured like this, multiple strands that appear unrelated but start to gel, there's a pressure for them to do so satisfactorily. I'm not convinced Fishskin Trousers pulled it off 100%, with some threads still feeling loose at the end, but the connections it does make are done pleasingly enough, and there's a few rather lyrically moving moments along the way.

Fishskin Trousers by Elizabeth Kuti is booking until the 28th of September at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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