The eponymous fishskin trousers glint and gleam, rainbows bouncing off scales as Ben (Brett Brown) puts them on to impress a girl in the 1970s. It’s the same gleam found on the fish that Mab (Jessica Carroll) feeds The Wild Man long ago, as he is strung up by his ankles; the same glint on the present that Mog (Eva Traynor) receives from one of the children she teaches in the present day. Three people, at three different times, with three different relationships to the shining scales, to the fish, to the sea. Or more specifically, three different connections to Orford, Suffolk, a sleepy seaside village that submerges the memories of the past beneath its murky, peaceful depths.
These protagonists never meet in Elizabeth Kuti’s exploration of anomalies and disconnected families. Their detached monologues are kept separate by the chasm of the centuries. Kuti prefers to isolate her characters, and thus compound their feelings of loneliness and helplessness. Each one subconsciously strives to belong but can never quite vocalise their desire – Robert Price’s direction prefers to keep this subtext implied rather than stated. And yet the language of their recollections is cleverly observant, relaxed and conversational, each individual easily opening up about their fears and desires with minimal prompting. All three inadvertently reveal their pervading intentions to find a place that they can call home.
Each character may not be able to put words to their want for a community, but there is no shortage of other sounds in Fishskin Trousers that highlights it for them. The pealing on a single bell from beneath the wave, the piercing scream that continually interrupts Ben’s thoughts, the unintelligible jibber-jabber of Mab’s unexpected visitor. The sounds in this production interlink the seemingly disparate narratives, feeble attempts to reassure these single points in history that they are not alone. However, Price takes an unusual decision not to use any actual noise at all – the design in many ways centres around sound and yet is bereft of it in the realisation. It’s an incomplete production, despite the suffocation of silence.
Nancy Surman’s design focuses around an oscillating soundwave, the only prominent feature on the back wall of the set. But this prominent inclusion isn’t enough to sufficiently frame the narrative. Each actor stands in place and delivers their tale with clarity and conviction, but there is no interaction between the three, save for one furtive glance between Ben and Mog when their familial connection is finally realised at the very end. Price may be stating that less is more in Fishskin Trousers, but this production is too sparse, too like a reading of a novel rather than a live performance in itself.
Kuti fleshes out each world with rich imagery and colourful, if often dense, text. Each individual tale is full of descriptive prowess and has a layered storyline. Price’s direction often leads to some clunky pacing and protracted periods of prose, but each actor is gifted enough to stand and deliver with inflection and micro-mannerism alone.
There is an underlying desperation that runs through all of the actors’ performances – each one is subtly unhinged to varying degrees. Radar specialist Ben (Brown) convincingly combines the affable, harmless quality of a nerdy scientist with the uncomfortable, creepy feeling of a predator. He watches the barmaid from afar and doesn’t let on as to whether he is going to approach her timidly or pounce with harrowing force. As time progresses, the former floats to the surface and Brown brings beauty into what may otherwise be a mundane, linear recollection. The finale to his tale is a gradual shift into deeper waters, luring and enticing you further in before you realise you are in dangerous territory. This overall progression is expertly achieved.
As the stories converge to a common ending, Fishskin Trousers’ twelfth-century worker Mab is the one who orates the clever narrative passages that interlink the trio. Carroll’s simplistic, apparently superficial delivery is in fact layered with hidden depths, a contrast to Traynor’s less complex performance. But even the ending isn’t enough to galvanise this story and give it the gravitas that’s missing.
Fishskin Trousers is a well-constructed set of disparate monologues that lack enough momentum, either on stage or in the dramaturgy, to fuse them together into one singular, complete entity.
Fishskin Trousers is at the Park Theatre until November 11th. For more details, click here.