A surreal moment in Liverpool, just as the polls are about to close in the independence referendum in Scotland.
It’s about 9.50pm on Thursday in the Bluecoat‘s second floor theatre and I’m watching two troubled men gaze out across a rugged Northern English landscape, minimally represented on stage by big cubes. One of them says wistfully: “On a clear day, you can see all the way up to Scotland.” And I’m thinking, there’s nothing clear about the view of Scotland at the moment.
A few hours later, I’m in a bo-ho late bar in Liverpool (one of my usual haunts) and it appears that Scotland is saying a paradoxically positive ‘No’ to independence. As a Northern English man who used to live in Scotland and loves that country, I’m relieved and hope-filled.
I’m also emotionally-enriched by having watched the play earlier. Fell gets to the heart of what it means to be human and survive after hard knocks and multiple ordeals as young lads growing up in less-than-ideal environments in the North.
It’s a searing one-act, two-handed play by Sean Burn, who describes himself as an outsider artist, and who certainly writes great poetic drama. From the start you’re wondering what it’s all about – not just wondering, but wanting to know – and caring about the two ‘damaged goods’ characters who are tasting freedom on the hilltops, all the while mixed with unease and uncertainty about their futures.
Dee (from a Scouse background) and Mol (a Tyke background) are aged 30 when the audience first see them stumble breathless onto the Cumbrian crags (don’t be confused by their names; these are both males). They are fresh from a court case. Someone called Bryant has been convicted by a court for some sort of serious abuse of Mol when he was a teenage boy. Dee had a hand in testifying and nailing Bryant and so Mol is grateful to him.
And 20-odd years earlier, we learn, when a teenage Mol had been unconscious after a fall, Dee had kissed him.
There is clearly a bond between these two – forged when they were outsiders together (one from Liverpool, the other from Yorkshire) in a Newcastle-upon-Tyne care home.
As the play gets under way, you sense that their bond, though strongly emotional, is unstable. One suspects mutual betrayal and abandonment in the back story of their relationship; yet they need each other with such passion! Shout it to the wind! Shout it from the hilltops! Yes, they do both of those things.
However, when they reunite after the court case they are as erratically and emotionally gusty in each other’s company as the Cumbrian wind that whips around them, seemingly beckoning them forward to a shared destiny. Very good outdoor sound effects, by the way: wind, birds, military jets.
Via a variety of flashbacks and clever, slowly-revealing dialogue, the febrile story of Dee and Mol, and their life together and apart, is told in 45-minutes of intimate drama.
The nature of the death of Dee’s mother is not all it seems, for instance. Dee feels guilty about it. Arguably he shouldn’t be, but some might feel otherwise. And there is resentment over a painting (Mol’s Mam was a painter) not returned when or where it should have been.
They’ve been through a lot together, these guys. Dee wants to give Mol a home, to forge a future with him, and to hug him. But Mol is a victim of abuse, remember, so the hug has to be done in a certain way. Awkward, at one point…
But intimacy can’t be ruled out and there are some surprises in the on-stage action and the movements of the two men. I don’t want to reveal too much here for fear of spoiling the play for those about to see it.
The pair’s banter is often poetically-tinged, and it works well with some lively on-stage movement. It’s a drama that manages to be both quietly philosophical and hot-tempered.
Full credit to the director, Lucia Cox (Northern Soul‘s Theatre Editor), who has a deft touch for displaying complex emotions clearly and sensitively, and to the fine young actors Craig Sharkey (Dee) and Joel Parry (Mol).
There are many themes in this play – territory, friendship, love, same-sex sexual attraction, as well as the importance of where you come from, and who you personally want to save you from life’s hellish clouts.
It’s also about the past and how disabling bad events can be – for everyone to some degree. One of our lads puts it this way: “Memories never stop putting the boot in.”
But these two also remember the good things: skimming stones across water (as boys always do); doing a mad dance as a troll; wishing on a feather and throwing it to the wind to make a dream come true; telling a friend (in a spirit of love) that he has ‘ancient eyes’; and the magic of mango lassi drinks.
The personal memories (good and bad) of the two characters work very effectively on the audience. At the end, you feel they will find a kind of happiness together as heroic survivors of bad life circumstances in the North; in our North, from parts of which you can see Scotland on the rare clear days. Scotland – where as we now see – bitter divisions can be resolved.
By the end of the play, I felt that Dee and Mol were going to be alright together, kind of, but that they’d probably need to run wild in the hills from time to time.
Though this reviewer’s knocks haven’t been as bad as those experienced by Dee and Mol, I do know the importance of strong friendships in helping a person achieve stability. And I speak as a survivor of nine mad years as a resident of New Brighton – and an upbringing in Wigan.
Fell – part of Liverpool’s Page to Stage Festival – is on elsewhere in the city. You can see it at House on Bold Street on September 25 at 7.30pm and at the Treasure House theatre in the World Museum on September 26 at 1pm.