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77

With Rob Thomson’s new play “Fearnot Wood,” it seems like the Fringe has finally started for me. This is, five days in, the best example I have come across of the best sort of theatre: student theatre, which, as Tychy is fond of insisting, enjoys creative freedoms which are found nowhere else. Yes, everybody is very young and the venues can be a bit of a squeeze at times, but there is usually, as there is here, unpretentious, uninhibited storytelling.

Fearnot Wood” has been brought to the Fringe by a company from University College London and it is currently established at Just the Tonic @ the Mash House. The play has a strange aesthetic to it and one might think at first that it is intended to be obscurely parodic. All of the characters are so hammers-and-tongs working class that they seem to inhabit a UKIP party political broadcast. The story is set in the Sussex town of Lewes and this has apparently arrived intact from the 1950s, with its uproarious community enthusiasm and flourishing tearooms.

The internet barely exists, or else it is a novelty, a gadget on which you can watch funny videos. When Garth (Eoin Bentick) disappeared in London for five years, nobody seems to have searched for him online. If a tiny child vanished without a trace in our own world, the result would be the sort of tabloid cosmic opera that we saw with Madeleine McCann. In Lewes, the same event is a local tragedy, something which a visitor from London would not have heard about.

Fascinatingly, however, this play functions as a portrait. The Lewes bonfire boys and their stripy tops are real (although this play alters the stripes to red); the burning of Osama Bin Laden in effigy likewise actually happened. We should not dismiss this picture of Lewes too quickly and perhaps we should concede more. Many English towns are no doubt still like this: small, nostalgic, drearily peaceful, and possibly maddening for the young people who are left behind in them. With Lewes’ bonfire antics, Thomson hits upon an exhilarating, unexpected means of recovering a world which is so commonplace that it has largely faded away.

Garth returns to his home town as a wretched, gibbering figure and we are never comfortable when he is on stage. His old friends turn up and they bring some good observational humour with them, but not enough sunshine to dispel the clouds. Indeed, the humour is deployed with restraint and maturity, and Thomson does not, for instance, take the easy option of transforming the bustling café owner (Ola Forman) into a caricature. The suspense becomes deep and rich; the stage lighting is so harsh that these characters often look like they are frozen in headlights. When a mysterious stranger (Rob Hayes) gatecrashes the play in pursuit of Garth, the suspense has reached its moment. The stranger could be Garth’s lover or his murderer.

Yet nothing is strained into melodrama. The ending of the play is pacy, but also tightly controlled. It did seem that the comic characters were slightly underused, or that more could have been wrung out of them, but on the other hand the play’s realism did take a knock with some gun-toting clowning about in the tearoom. The rather potted nature of the tragedy was ultimately a strength – some of these characters will survive, and there will be other bonfire nights for them.

At last, the Fringe has finally started. What’s next?

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