Fred's Diner

Penelope Skinner
Chichester Festival Theatre
Theatre on the Fly, Chichester Festival Theatre

Cush Jumbo as Melissa
Tracey Wilkinson as Heather
Olivia Poulet as Chloe

On the edge of a busy motorway with traffic roaring past, Fred’s Diner is very much in today’s world, particularly the casual use of ‘strong’ language, but Fred (Paul Hickey) has furnished it in fifties style with pink and white booths, a jukebox prominent in the corner and formica-topped bar, a nostalgic nod, perhaps, to happier times in his life before his wife left him.

A jovial Irishman and rather too fond of his evening beer, he is still very much in control of the establishment and his three waitresses, daughter Melissa (Cush Jumbo) with ambitions to study Law at Oxford, irresponsible and selfish Chloe (Olivia Poulet) just back from a ‘gap year’ in Thailand and sporting shocking pink hair extensions and the more serious Heather (Tracey Wilkinson), an older woman with a dark and secret past.

Penelope Skinner’s new play (a world première) is not so much a story as an insightful look into the psyche and interaction of people thrown together by circumstance or necessity, all looking for fulfillment but in very different ways, and it reflects also on the continuing oppression of women. It is beautifully crafted, well observed and with the benefit of some superb performers the characters really live, keeping us absorbed and really caring about what happens to them.

I found that my emotions were keeping pace with the action and, after the laughter and comedy of the first half, I was fighting back the tears at Melissa’s frustration, longing for Heather to find and accept true love and wanting to shake Chloe out of her self-satisfied irresponsible attitude.

Their two customers have their problems too. Old, garrulous Sunny (Raad Rawi) is still working as a driver, but how long can he keep that up? Also, he is very lonely since his wife moved back to India—in 1998. Greg (Laurence Dobiesz) the young, immature lad who first runs away without paying and then comes back to rob the place is from a broken home; lost and alone he waits in vain for his absent father to send money.

Beginning as comedy, there are plenty of laughs with the banter between owner Fred and his waitresses, but it isn’t long before the darker elements slowly begin to surface, and it is a futile argument about a cabbage which leads to the final tragedy.

As the last theatrical offering from the temporary Theatre on the Fly, this is a zinger to conclude its season featuring one of the best contemporary writers today and directed with a sure hand by the young, Chichester-trained Tim Hoare.

In the words of the 1962 theatre’s founder, Leslie Evershed-Martin “The area.... must always have the fresh air of the park blowing though it... with frequent injections of new ideas and inventions”. He would be proud and pleased to see it today.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor