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Jump You Bastard!

Paul Buie
Customs House, South Shields
(2005)

Jump You Bastard publicity image

For a small theatre in a provincial town to run the risk of putting on a play by an unknown and untried writer is courageous: to do it three weeks in succession could probably best be described as foolhardy. But that's what the Customs House is doing with its fourth annual February Drama Festival this year. In the past the plays in FebFest have been new, but they've all been by established writers: this year they are all by totally new writers who are the winners of a playwriting competition, for which one of the main conditions of entry was that entrants should not have had a play professionally performed before. And they had to be comedies - not the easiest form of writing, even for established writers.

Jump You Bastard! is the first of these and if the standard it sets is maintained by the other two, then the risk was well worth taking.

The first thing most would-be writers of the genre have to learn is that stringing together a series of jokes is emphatically not the way to write a stage comedy - or at least one which will stay in the minds of the audience once the laughing has stopped. To his credit Paul Buie seems to know this instinctively and the humour of Jump You Bastard! arises from the characters in the particular - believeable, even if only in terms of the play - situation in which they find themselves. I would be hard-pressed to remember more than one or two "funny lines", and yet I laughed - often.

It is, in fact, a deeply serious play which examines a number of damaged lives: the life of the "bastard" standing on top of the Tyne Bridge about to throw himself off and the parallel lives of a married couple whose relationship we see developing over a period of ten years as they stand looking down from the same bridge on three wedding anniversaries - their fifth, tenth and fifteenth.

There is a qualitative difference between the two strands: the bridge sequence is a little surreal, whereas the married couple sequence is more firmly character-based, and the two don't always sit together as well as they perhaps should. Both work well, but the marriage between them is not always totally happy.

Or are they really different strands? Is the jumper actually the husband at a later point in his life? Possibly. The ending is unexpected and throws the reality of all that has gone before into doubt. Buie works through suggestion: what is real, what is memory, what is imagination are never stated. He leaves us to draw our own conclusions.

This is his third play, albeit the first to be professionally produced, and he is clearly developing a good grasp of his craft and, in particular, the value of the indirect.

As far as the performances are concerned, the cast of five under the experienced direction of Jackie Fielding, last seen at the Customs House directing Cuddy's Miles and one of the North East's most imaginative directors, do full justice to the play and contribute in no small measure to its success. Michael Gunn's David (the eponymous "bastard") excites our sympathy and our amusement in equal measure, and policeman Martin (Sean Kenny), the most obviously "comic" character, and obnoxious radio "personality" Trudy (Jill Dellow) create the surreal atmosphere of the "jumper" sequence, and Chris Connel and Sophie Scott, in what is essentially a sort of Educating Rita situation, draw many a sympathetic wince from the married members of the audience.

A good start to the festival and an excellent justification for the playwriting competition.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan