Customs House, South Shields
Part of the 2003 February Drama Festival
After the buzz of a full house for Dirty Dusting, the first play in the Customs House's annual new writing drama festival, it was a little disappointing to see the house little more than a third full for the first night of Fool's Day, the new play by Jarrow-based Alex Ferguson whose credits include a Writers' Guild award, a Sony Drama Award nomination, numerous radio productions and a London run with The Flag, starring Corin and Vanessa Redgrave.
Fool's Day is almost a monologue: Peter Donaldson is an old man who may have had a fascinating and exciting life, or who may be an aging Billy Liar. Now he lives in a decaying tower block surrounded by a young and violent society which is completely alien to him and escaping into a fantasy which he devises for an email correspondent, a old friend from schooldays who is now living a life of luxury in Sweden. He strikes up a strange kind of relationship with one neighbour, Sheena, young and very down-to-earth, and, during the course of the play, comes into close contact with the violence which is the life of the younger people who surround him.
It sounds pretty grim and depressing, but in fact Fool's Day is a comedy. A very black comedy, certainly, but a comedy nonetheless, and one which achieves a kind of affirmation of life amid the squalor and endemic violence.
Peter is played by Colin MacLachlan, whom the publicity describes as a "senior" North Eastern actor, now resident in London but who has appeared with Live Theatre and Northern Stage (Newcastle). It's a good performance, making Peter's extremes of exuberant imagination and the squalor of his life totally believable, and moving us, not to pity and fear but, by turns, to pity and admiration: pity because of what he has sunk to and admiration for his willingness to stand up to the violence with which he is threatened, all wrapped up in the Billy Liar-like coping mechanism of his imagination and use of language.
The rest of the cast are members of Ferguson's Bold As Brass Theatre Company, a community/youth theatre group. It has to be said that their performances are not of the same quality as MacLachlan's, but that is only to be expected, given his considerably greater experience and training. There were moments when the intimidation was not, perhaps, as intimidating as it might have been - although Andy Kidd's Morrie scared me! - but put this down to the comparative inexperience of the actors.
Vicki Wilson's Sheena, however, grew on me. She seemed to gather confidence and strength as the evening progressed - first night nerves, perhaps? - and by the second act was a fine foil for MacLachlan's performance.
Some members of the audience near me were shocked at some of the language - it is very strong, but not at all gratuitous in terms of the play, for it is the language of the type of characters who used it. The oft-repeated "There's no need for that" is right in one sense - there is no need for this kind of language to be used so frequently, but used it is, and very frequently, in life and for the playwright not to use it would not only be totally unrealistic but would also fail to convey the frightening poverty of language and complete lack of emotional control which is typical of the sort of people being portrayed.
Without it, the contrast between Peter and the people among who he has been reduced to living would be nowhere near as strong and, just as important, the characterisation of Sheena would not have been so strong or so convincing, for it was very noticeable that the only tme she used such language was in dealing with those who used it themselves. With them, her language changed totally.
The twist at the end - no, I'm not going to reveal it! - provided a satisfyingly comic and yet completely right conclusion. There are numerous layers to the play: it can be read (and enjoyed) on a number of levels. I hope the audiences pick up for the rest of the run: if not, the Customs House patrons will have missed a good piece of theatre.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan