Charlotte O'Leary, Class struggle, David Goodhart, Edinburgh Fringe, Island Town, Jack Wilkinson, Katherine Pearce, Paines Plough and Theatr Clwyd, Simon Longman, Stef O'Driscoll, Summerhall, Theatre Review
“Island Town” is written by Simon Longman and it is brought to the Fringe by Paines Plough and Theatr Clwyd. An exhilarating and engrossing drama, it is significantly enhanced by being staged at the Summerhall’s Roundabout. I will never be comfortable in the Summerhall – it is too much of a playground for London’s absentee middle class – but the Roundabout (itself part of the influx from down south) has never stopped being as thrilling to me as it was the first time I visited. An open hand that has always got a gift nestling in it, this multi-coloured amphitheatre is somehow both plain and atmospheric, vivid and unobtrusive. The sound system is impressive too and during this performance the very ceiling seems to be breathing with an ominous, asthmatic heaviness.
Three teenagers, Kate, Sam and Pete (Katherine Pearce, Charlotte O’Leary and Jack Wilkinson) tell their story. In between scenes, they dance like scraps of litter blown around on a breeze, whilst the ceiling breathes down your neck, and it is only at the end of the story that you realise that these characters are “spinning” in the mind and memory of the über-tragic protagonist Kate. The kids want to get out of their “island town” but their prospects are not accommodating. They have all left school at sixteen; one is vaguely a carer, one works in a shop, and the other can be rounded down to unemployable. Their mothers are all missing and unmentioned.
The challenge for “Island Town” is to communicate to us, a worldly and experienced Fringe audience, what ignorance is really like at its most mind-boggling. What is it like to have never left the town that you grew up in? How is it possible to inhabit a world that must be so maddeningly small?
I think that “Island Town” can be graded as a pure alpha in what it is trying to do. The concluding action is especially alert and deft. Nonetheless, whilst one cannot fault the play as a drama, it appears rather more dubious as a political proposition or a class statement. “Island Town” makes you feel like a visitor to Bedlam, or as though you have been unexpectedly captivated by characters who you would automatically shun in real life. With the clunkiness of the dim-wittedness on stage, I was at times reminded of Tony Husband’s cartoon “Yobs” in Private Eye. And though one might judge the language and events of this play to be ultimately authentic, you wonder whether it is true in its heart of hearts. Would these working-class teenagers really be so overwhelmed and unresilant? Can the lights be honestly turned down this low?
The play makes its excuses. There is some subtle supernaturalism added to take the edge off the characters’ lack of agency – an implication that the town is cursed, so that when the kids try to leave they get “stuck” to the pavements. The characters are also compensated with some entertaining sass and in the lyricism of Pete, the sweetest of the teenagers, the story seems to find a leg that can bear its difficult weight. “Island Town” fields a fresh, solid trio of performances, but Pete, the character who grants us indulgences of whimsical relief, somehow feels the most natural. It is when they are all despairing that something sentimental and potentially clichéd slips into the realism, as destructively as a fox into the henhouse.
In some countries, this island town would be any town, like Springfield in The Simpsons. Here, it is admittedly a town that is nowhere on the map, but neither can it be quite placed on David Goodhart’s famous division of the UK into Anywheres and Somewheres. We, the middle-class audience, are of course from Anywhere, but these kids do not strike me as being from a modern, riled-up, Brexit-voting Somewhere. With no references to modern technology or to the UK’s post-2004 immigration, this is conceivably a town from the 1990s. These days, such island towns are rather more disruptive than is to the proper liking of audiences such as we.