HighTide Festival Theatre prides itself on its track record of developing new writing, having premiered over 50 new plays since its foundation in 2007. The centrepiece of their work, the annual HighTide Festival in Suffolk, has this year moved to a new home in the seaside town of Aldeburgh and amongst the seagulls, the stormy North Sea, and the award-winning fish and chips, there are at least two commendable productions.
So Here We Are is a new drama by Luke Norris, centred on four posturing friends and their inability to come to terms with the suicide of the fifth member of their five-a-side team. To begin with, Pidge (Sam Melvin), Smudge (Dorian Jerome Simpson), Pugh (Mark Weinman) and Dan (Ciarán Owens) wait impatiently around a shipping container for Kirsty (Jade Anouka), the late Frankie’s girlfriend.
There is more than a shade of Channel 4’s The Inbetweeners about their interaction. They aren’t adults, more grown-up schoolboys, thrust into seriousness and solemnity by an unexpected tragedy but clinging on to their childish exuberance. Ties untied, shirts untucked, they joke and argue with enjoyable verve, before lapsing into remorseful silence as reality knocks again.
Witty and moving by turns, Norris’ fast-paced dialogue is a delight, a melting pot of put-downs, laddish banter and contemplation. A picture of the absent Frankie is subtly painted, and hints are gradually dropped as to the reason for his untimely death. When Kirsty arrives, the narrative shifts back in time, the audience witnesses each character’s last conversation with Frankie (Daniel Kendrick), and begins to understand.
Trapped in a dead-end job, ignored by a preoccupied girlfriend, and haunted by what might have been, Frankie’s despair is born of frustration and disillusion. This is powerful stuff, although the latter part of the play feels decidedly heavy-handed, Kendrick’s convincing portrayal of a man disenchanted with the life he has been forced to lead, together with the other cast members proficient performances, is magnetic enough to carry the audience’s empathy.
Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa is as topical a play as it is possible to find. A two-hander, comprising two interlocking but superficially unrelated monologues, it focusses on issues surrounding migration. Stephen Elder plays Stefano, an Italian fisherman in a ruined economy, tasked with the unsavoury task of hauling drowned bodies from the Mediterranean. Louise Mai Newberry plays Denise, a Yorkshire debt-collector of Chinese ancestry, whose life is made all the harder by a disabled mother and a hefty university bill.
This is a bleak piece of theatre. Stefano’s accounts of over-crowded migrant boats, detailed descriptions of deformed corpses floating in the sea, and heart-breaking stories of separated families, are particularly galling – the distant sound of crashing waves and the wind racing off the cold North Sea are evocative helpers. Denise’s monologue is perhaps slightly less visceral but equalling affecting for its relatability. Both are rife with unfairness and injustice, tear-jerkingly so at times.
Newberry and Elder deliver powerful performances, Newberry as a hard-nosed Northerner, Elder as a world-wearied sea-dog. Behind both facades, however, lies an endearing softness, which is slowly revealed as the stories develop. There is a tangible connection between them and the audience, who sit on wooden benches in the round and amongst whom Newberry and Elder mingle throughout.
For all its despair and desolation, Lampedusa is actually a remarkably invigorating piece of theatre. Hope, and its ability to burn even in the darkest of times, is the thread that twists its way through both monologues. The result is a play that is less a depressing critique on contemporary affairs, and more an uplifting comment on the endurance of the human spirit. It is sobering, certainly, but not cripplingly so.