“Half-drowned but still alive”
Haunting medieval folk tales from the East Anglian coast; undecipherable noises on a radar system at the height of the Cold War; the anguished prevarications of a modern day woman with plenty on her mind. Fishskin Trousers, Elizabeth Kuti’s new play for West London’s Finborough Theatre, combines these three elements into an interwoven story of loss and heartbreak, love and despair, all connected by their location – the village of Orford in Suffolk and the adjacent mysterious island of Orford Ness.
On a stage empty but for three chairs and with an unfussily effective lighting design from Matt Leventhall, it is clear that the focus of Robert Price’s production is on the power of storytelling and how it can form connections across time and space. Kuti’s three monologues from her three very different characters are segmented into each other, shifting from narrative to narrative, and so teasing out the links that emerge in the subtlest of ways, revelations come gently and so feel natural rather than artificially forced onto the play for expediency.
The writing also strikes a predominantly good balance between comedy and tragedy, something picked up excellently in two of the performances. Jessica Carroll’s 12th century serving wench Mab is a wonderful confection, a strong regional accent and medieval dialect no obstacle to creating the most vivid of charactisations as she shares the tale of the capture of The Wild Man of Orford and her own tenuous place in the society of the local Duke. And Brett Brown’s ’70s scientist, the Antipodean Ben, is an engrossingly charming presence, breaking our hearts as he relives an especially painful chapter from his past.
It thus feels a little odd that the third character, Eva Traynor’s contemporary Mog is so rooted in the tragedy of her particular dilemma. The empathy that comes so naturally for the other two is lacking here since the emotional timbre of her story, and consequently her performance, is too intensely grim when held up against the richness of personality coming from elsewhere. But there’s no doubting the heartfelt sincerity that drives this production and its admirable simplicity in a world full of distractions.