I’ve never been very good at Valentine’s Day. Even when I have every reason to be happy, I find the whole thing so weighted with expectation, so unnecessary, that it just makes me crabby and I prefer to pretend it’s not happening. In fact I rather take pleasure in using the day in a manner that is as unromantic as possible. So the idea of going to watch Scarborough, a play about a dubious relationship in inevitable decline, rather appealed.
I went to last Thursday’s 5.30pm performance (they squeeze another one in later in the evening) a timing that rather threw my usual theatre routine out of kilter. The first thing that strikes you as you enter the Royal Court’s upstairs space is the set. The entire theatre has been decked out as a somewhat seedy Scarborough hotel room, complete with cigarette burns on the terracotta coloured carpet and peeling floral wallpaper adorned with commemorative plates. There is no conventional seating, instead audience members are forced to either squat on the floor or perch on the furniture, as the actors move around them. This, of course, gives an added intimacy to the production, though at times it feels almost too intrusive. When one of the characters sat sobbing on the stool by the dressing table, it was happening centimeters from my face, and I found myself instinctively looking down, looking away, giving them their privacy.
So yes, as I’ve said, Fiona Evans’ play presents a brief fiery relationship burning itself out. What gives this scenario an edge is the age gap. The boy in question is meant to be just fifteen, the woman is pushing thirty – she is also his teacher. I gather that Evans’ play was incredibly well received at last year’s Edinburgh fringe festival. But the version that she has brought to the Royal Court has been substantially revised. It now has a new second half, absent in Edinburgh, where an identical scenario is played out after the interval, only this time with the genders reversed: with a girl of fifteen and an older male teacher. The dialogue remains the same – line for line – but the dynamics have shifted. It’s an intriguing idea, but it doesn’t quite work, in fact, I thought it ended up undermining the writing in the long run.
In Scarborough’s first half, the tight, powerful performances of Holly Atkins and Jack O’Connell hold the piece together. O’Connell, in particular, is spot on, I thought. He is so cocky and sure of himself, yet when he is given a PSP as a birthday present he bounces on the bed with the undisguised glee of a child. When the genders are switched in the second half, Rebecca Ryan and Daniel Mayes take on the roles. The idea I suppose is that it is somehow more shocking, more unnerving to see an older man and a young girl in this position, and that this in turn makes you reconsider your responses to the earlier half of the production. This is true to an extent, Mayes as Adian, is able to physically dominate Ryan’s Beth in a way that wasn’t possible with the other pairing, but there is more going on here than just a straight gender swap – the particular casting means the whole dynamic of the relationship is altered. He is far more needy, she more mature. The balance of power between them is subtly altered, though the dialogue doesn’t really reflect this. The decision to replicate the first half line for line actually ends up backfiring. What convinced initially, sounds slacker, more flabby, second time round, and Ryan in particular is saddled with dialogue and attitude that just don’t ring true of a girl her age. A number of the lines sounded just plain wrong coming from the mouth of a teenage girl, and this is quite distancing, I found, ultimately diluting the considerable clout of the first half.
The play ends up feeling like an exercise in theory, rather than a piece you can take on its own terms. I can understand the thinking behind the decision to extend it in this way, but what was intended to add an extra layer, actually undermines the piece in the end. Yes, it makes the audience question and ponder what went before, but perhaps not in the way that Evans had hoped.
I was actually beside the seaside this weekend gone, though Brighton rather than Scarborough, catching up with occasional interval drinks companion French Claire. The weather was glorious, so un-February like, the sun glinting off the sea. Quite, quite lovely.