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138

[The following contains spoilers.]

Ten minutes into this show and a gentleman who looks like Old Father Time invades the theatre. He sits down next to me and promptly falls asleep. In his sleep, he starts to dance. He jabs at the floor with a crutch and tips ever more dangerously forward. An attendant dips nimbly in and sets him on his feet. He is standing in the doorway of the theatre for the rest of the play, apparently asleep on his feet and swaying to and fro.

This gentleman’s behaviour is the most inexplicable thing that I have seen at the Fringe for a long time, and yet I like very much how it harmonises with the aesthetic of Tabitha Mortiboy’s and Maureen Lennon’s “Bare Skin on Briny Waters.” Three women sit on a park bench, two of them (Lennon and Charlie Sellers) recounting dreamy stories and the third (Isobel Rogers) strumming a guitar. Ideally, you would come across these three whilst roaming a huge park on a lonely September afternoon. There would be those sleepy, depleted people who hang out in parks in the daytime lingering vacantly around the bench.

The venue is the Pleasance Courtyard and the company, Bellow Theatre, represent Hull in full “City of Culture” mode. “Bare Skin on Briny Waters” is definitely an autumnal play. It sings a song of disillusionment and the passing of youth, although, with the women being in their mid-twenties, it is rather like an autumn in May. Annie (Sellers) is a girl whose boyfriend is in a coma (“I know, it’s serious”) after he fell off a cliff. The story begins with him waking up again and Annie hastening to his bedside. Yet she gets on the wrong train and narrates her story whilst hurtling in the opposite direction. Sophie (Lennon) is a passenger in the adjoining seat. Her husband is a bit of a pig and she is dissatisfied with her marriage. We gradually realise that Sophie has been placed in the same carriage as Annie in order to illustrate the empty life that she has so far managed to avoid.

We see a play that is a jumble of symbols and trivia (e.g. the story of Scheherazade, internet facts about fish) reflected in fragments of broken glass on the floor. I am a very bad man and after a while I was wondering whether Annie had given her boyfriend a helpful push off that precipice, especially since he was down on his knees proposing marriage at the time. Such is the persuasiveness of “Bare Skin on Briny Waters” as a drama that its obviously comic central scenario never occurs to you as being funny. Nonetheless, the play is greatly more powerful whilst alternative interpretations of it remain only possibilities. Regrettably, the ambiguity is dispensed with and we learn about the true events on the cliff edge. The play might be made more rounded by this decision but I was left feeling nostalgic for its previous aesthetic force.

If Annie was a man who had pushed his girlfriend off a cliff because she was stifling his creativity, this would be a far more problematic play. “Bare Skin on Briny Waters” is sweetly melancholy but not, in the end, really about anything. Sophie is suffering from the existential equivalent of a tummy ache. People who are stranded in unhappy marriages usually just sort their problems out.

I was pleasantly distracted, however, by this play’s quizzical toying with the story of Scheherazade. Annie’s boyfriend is preserved in a coma just as King Shahryar was kept waiting after each Arabian Night by way of a very different manner of, yes, cliff-hanger. Did Scheherazade in fact give up and betray herself?, this play whispers daringly. Can you imagine Scheherazade as an old woman?