Whereas Chichester Festival Theatre should most definitely be applauded for stretching its artistic remit with the construction of the temporary Theatre on the Fly to give it a much-needed shot in the arm of contemporary drama, it could still do with a look at the scheduling. By putting shows on at 8pm, especially ones which run for nearly 2 hours 30 minutes, they’ve instantly nixed any chance of people coming to see it via public transport unless they make it to a matinée performance. As it was, I was headed this way(ish) en route to Brighton Pride and I love me some Cush Jumbo so I was willing to make the effort to see Penelope Skinner’s latest play Fred’s Diner.
Fred’s is a 50s-themed motorway restaurant, a failing slice of Americana in the West Midlands in which acts as a cul-de-sac for troubled souls. On the staff, Heather is an ex-con desperate for the opportunity to prove herself, Chloe’s a bit of a drifter even at 30, work-shy and only really there to pay off her debts and the bills from her late ‘gap-year’ to Thailand, and Melissa dreams of studying law at Oxford. But Melissa is the daughter of Fred, and as the play evolves, we see the horribly tense dynamic that exists between father and daughter and realise how trapped all the women, but particularly Melissa, are beneath their matching uniforms.
Skinner’s skill as a dramatist is undeniable – The Village Bike proved that – but Fred’s Diner doesn’t quite live up to that mark. The play rarely flows as naturally as it should, each character pointedly gets their opportunity to tell their back-story which lends a contrived feel, the foreshadowing of later events is almost criminally heavy-handed. What saves it though, is a keen ear for the type of dialogue that genuinely constructs and enriches character and the kind of actors who can deliver this with conviction.
Cush Jumbo as the conflicted Melissa best exemplifies this here with a powerfully moving performance which captures the agonising struggle in her life, but Olivia Poulet’s comically selfish Chloe and Tracey Wilkinson’s painful sincerity as Heather, always trying to make amends for her past yet never quite getting there, is excellently done. Andrew D Edwards’ design looks great in the space and Tim Hoare’s production is cleverly pitched to deal with the dramatic shortcomings and pulling out such great performances from his cast. So worth the trip in the end, but I ask CFT to think about the scheduling if they do something similar next year (which they totally should.)