Old Market / Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton
Opened 20 May, 2010
**** / ***

It may be set in and around a small hotel in the city, but it is difficult to believe that Marine Parade will have no life beyond a week’s run at the Brighton Festival. For this is a musical with script by Simon Stephens (his second collaborative opening in barely a week, after A Thousand Stars Explode In The Sky at the Lyric Hammersmith) and songs by Mark Eitzel, formerly of American Music Club. Eitzel and his small acoustic band occupy one corner behind the counter in “reception”, whilst in front of them hotel manager Steve, cleaner Sally and a handful of guests and others act out a mosaic series of scenes set during the course of one day rather than a narrative as such.

This Brighton is a place defined by not being anywhere else: it is where folk take refuge from their besetting problems, or where they slink to for a dirty weekend, or where they leave for university. As usual with Stephens, no-one has the life they want, or much of one at all that we can discern. Yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, we identify with them because we see that their thoughts and feelings are those of any or all of us. Eitzel’s music is a close analogue for Stephens’ theatre: soft yet unflinching, largely bleak yet swerving away at the last minute from despair to affirmation.

The Old Market is not as accommodating a theatre space as it appears: playing on three sides like this puts the performers some distance away from the main bank of audience. However, director Jo McInnes counteracts this by smart use of vomitorium aisles for entrances, exits and backing vocals during musical numbers, adding a surround-sound feel to Thor McIntyre-Burnie’s wonderfully discreet ambient sound design.

Berlin-based Rimini Protokoll specialise in theatre pieces performed by “real” people, ranging from a group of elderly Swiss model railway enthusiasts to one of muezzins from Cairo. Best Before comes from the world of video games and also uses the audience directly, as a quartet of performers talk us through using our game control handsets to steer our video avatars through their virtual lives, from teenage sex and drugs to war, natural disaster and yet another election (although, bizarrely, at the performance I attended, our elected president then voted to depose and execute herself). The video is basic, and too much time is spent guiding us through the mechanics to give us the kind of personal insights usual with Rimini presentations. It is an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours, and if you are so minded you might muse to yourself upon real and virtual societies and how this kind of communal involvement compares and contrasts with more conventional audience arrangements in theatre. However, I do not think that these issues are substantively raised by the piece itself, which feels rather gratuitous by the company’s standards.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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