Fringe benefits

Fringe benefits

The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that I have increased my theatre going activities in this current year. More specifically efforts have been increased in the direction of fringe theatre. This is an area which I admit I have badly neglected over time and it deserves support. It enhances local communities, provides employment opportunities and helps to develop new writing and performing talent. I remember going to the Almeida about fifteen years ago to see a production of Edward Albee’s The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? The star turn was undoubtedly Jonathan Price but playing his son was an (at the time) relatively unknown young actor who has gone on to great things – Eddie Redmayne. And even if there are no recognisable star names, smaller venues on tighter budgets can offer up as much of a quality experience as any Cameron Mackintosh blockbuster. The recent Offie Awards handed out last weekend certainly contain a list of names to watch out for in the future.

Speaking of which, I doubt you will have heard of Nicôle Lecky but I assure you that you will. My latest foray was to the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs – part of the Royal Court. While I’m not sure, strictly speaking, that the theatre would classify itself as “fringe” this 90 seater black box auditorium could hardly be called mainstream. Anyway, fringe or not here’s my review of what I saw there:

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For the first couple of minutes of Nicôle Lecky’s extended monologue Superhoe at the Royal Court, I feared the piece was going to trade only in clichés and offer a portrait of a central character with whom I would have no connection. The audience is presented with Sasha, an unemployed spliff-smoking, mixed-race young woman preoccupied with making it big in the music biz. She is gobby, sassy, provoking, obsessed with her social media profile and the cult of celebrity and with an all too apparent sense of entitlement. What could that have to do with me? Then Sasha casually mentions that she lives in Plaistow and I was hooked, for that was where I spent my formative years.

From that moment on we were allowed to start seeing (or I allowed myself to see, take your choice) the deeper levels of character at work. As might be expected the bravado and bolshiness so keenly displayed masked a whole set of deeper insecurities. Sasha doesn’t want to still live at home with her repartnered mother, boring stepfather and annoying stepsister but without money what else can she do? Her old school friends have moved on and left her behind – how has that happened? And just why hasn’t “boyfriend” Anton called her or replied to her messages in the last fortnight? Gradually the reality of Sasha’s situation begins to dawn on us – if not on her.

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Following an incident of horticultural arson, Sasha’s family announce they are moving and suddenly she faces the moment where she has to fend for herself. This she thinks she is more than capable of doing but soon finds herself caught up in the world of sex work – online titillation, escort services, prostitution and, eventually, an orgy in Dubai. While it brings in the money it is soul destroying stuff. Sasha begins to realise this and so we hope that this will be her salvation.

Nicôle Lecky is both writer and performer. As a writer she shows great promise. Lecky’s dialogue is caustic and considered in equal measure and her use of idiom conveys meaning even when the actual expressions are new – I certainly extended my understanding of the current vernacular across the course of the evening. However, it is as a performer that Lecky really shines. Her body language starts out as belligerent and “in your face” yet mellows as the evening progresses and Sasha starts to grow up. Her delivery of her own words is sharp and insistent and she has a very acute sense of timing delivering one liners with panache worthy of the best stand up. As well as the protagonist she also embodies a whole array of other characters with whom Sasha interacts. For these Lecky slips effortlessly between accents, genders and age ranges and truly brings these unseen elements to life.

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And if that isn’t enough Lecky also has a great singing voice. The piece is appropriately punctuated with the songs/raps on which Sasha is supposedly working. Lecky has provided her own lyrics (naturally) while music is by The Last Skeptik (Corin Douieb). The earlier songs are full of bravado and angst while the latter are somewhat more fragile and reflective mirroring Sasha’s own journey to self- awareness.

The simple functional set takes in multiple locations which are successfully enhanced by appropriate lighting changes (Chloe Lamford and Prema Mehta respectively). The whole is dominated by a constantly blinking ATM which at one stage spews out money and which throughout relays mordantly telling messages such as “Do you want to fulfil your dream?” Costume (Kiera Liberati) is well used to suggest Sasha’s changing fortunes as she progresses from hoodies and trainers to furs and high heels and back again. Direction by Jade Lewis is sharp and focused though probably more successful in the earlier less reflective scenes.

While there is nothing surprising about the trajectory which Superhoe takes, indeed it is a well-worn tale, the vivid characterisation ensures that the play is never less than intriguing. As a first piece at the Royal Court it is assured and confident. It is certainly not afraid to tackle serious issues in very direct language and it is some while since I have heard audible gasps of alarmed disbelief from audience members as events unfold. A last scene key revelation is both somehow expected but still shocking. I feared the piece might leave me unmoved and perhaps even bored – but it didn’t. Welcome to a new talent from whom I am sure we will see great things.*

So, watch this space. In the meantime I hope I’ll be able to do further talent spotting as I continue to comb the fringe (see what I did there?) Fortunately you can see a lot more off West End theatre for your money than when paying increasingly exorbitant West End prices. Yes, I know rents and wage bills for Shaftesbury Avenue are sky high but we seem to entering an era of unparalleled silliness when it comes to paying for tickets. The new production of All About Eve, for instance, is looking for £150 for a so called premium seat (generally centre stalls about six rows from the stage)… though that is as nothing compared to the nonsensical sums expected by ticket reselling sites such as this

Ticket

Tell me that’s a misprint or a bad joke; it would appear you don’t even get the ticket delivered for free!

Production photos by Helen Murray
*This review first appeared in Sardines Magazine

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