A couple of nights ago I went to the Emporium Theatre in Brighton to see Fishskin Trousers – not, as you’d be forgiven for assuming, an experimental noise combo much beloved by John Peel, but a haunting and cleverly written theatre piece. Elizabeth Kuti’s play consists of three intertwined monologues delivered by three characters from different points in time who all have a connection with Orford Ness, Suffolk (also the subject of Thomas Dolby’s The Invisible Lighthouse which, bizarrely, I saw him presenting live only about three weeks ago). The director is Robert Price.
I’m not too big a fan of theatre in general, which I think is down to a failure of imagination on my part as I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief when I’m watching two or more people conversing on stage in an improbably well-enunciated and over-projected manner, but I really really liked this: it seemed to have more in common with something like Robert Lloyd Parry’s sublime performances of the ghost stories of M.R.James than it did with what I’ve seen of modern stage-bound drama. The three characters in this piece are Mab, played by Jessica Carroll, a 12th Century serving maid, Ben (Sean Ohlendorf), an Australian radar scientist posted to the Ness in 1973, and Mog (Eva Traynor), an early 21st Century school teacher, with the starting point for the piece being Mab’s description of the capture of a strange and bedraggled man of the sea in the nets of some local fishermen. The three take in turns to relate sections of their stories and at first there’s no connection apparent between them other than the local geography, but as the piece develops you start to realise how events in one strand affect those of another and by the end the three accounts form a satisfying whole. They’re also variously grotesque, funny, haunting, surprisingly educational and ultimately very moving due to the quality and accessibility of the writing and the acting, with the metaphor of murky coastal waters for suppressed secrets and traumas proving highly effective.
The staging is minimal – only three chairs and some subtle flickering light effects to suggest water – and there’s no point during the hour and a quarter duration of the play that you find your concentration wandering. The Emporium Theatre is a converted church, with what used to be the nave given over to a cafe and the theatre not much more than a few rows of chairs in what would have been the altar area and it’s a highly appropriate setting for a stripped down piece like this, with nothing to distract you from the performers. Very glad I went to see this, even though I’m now stuck with the voice of John Peel in my head telling me that that was Fishskin Trousers in session, and there’ll be two more from them later.