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Published on Tuesday, 08 May 2012

4 stars

Upstairs at Three and Ten (venue website)
7 May, 3:00pm-4:20pm; 8-9 May, 8:30pm-9:50pm; 19-20 May, 1:00pm-2:20pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Suitable for age 15+ only.
 2-for-1 tickets for Friends of the Fringe members.

Few pieces of theatre attempt to convey the whole of a character’s life, but this play, remarkably, takes on two of them.  Lavinia and Hettie, growing up together in a small and isolated community, find their paths through life are intertwined – and since their culture practises polygamy, those paths cross in unexpected and often-painful ways.  We visit them once each decade, as truths are revealed and friendships tested, all set against the fascinating backdrop of the Mormon exodus to Utah.

It’s a format rich with potential.  Each new decade brings fresh mysteries; we’re dropped right into the middle of a new conversation, and left to figure out exactly what’s happened in the years since we last met.  There’s a portentous ongoing storyline – a collective guilt and a terrible crime – yet the mood stays mainly light, with the humorous dialogue deftly played.  Some scenes dragged a little and others seemed hurried, but the densely-packed script sounds natural in the two actresses’ mouths.

Noor Lawson and Liz McMullen must age their characters by 50 years in the course of the play, but they proved the equals of that difficult challenge.  In barely-perceptible steps from scene to scene, innocent children turn into worldly-wise old ladies.  Their manner changes, their voices shift, their movements slow down.  Ironically, it’s when they’re playing their natural age that I found the performances least convincing: Lawson, in particular, comes dangerously close to overpowering the intimate venue, setting the emotional volume to 11 in a few key scenes.

In another way, though, this production is beautifully attuned to the small-scale theatre it’s found itself in.  The set is simply styled and, whether by fortune or planning, perfectly matched to the rustic charms of Upstairs at Three and Ten.  The elegant costumes – subtly different for each scene – delicately evoke the passage of the years, and the whole lot’s coordinated in restrained shades of orange and brown.  A great deal of thought’s gone into this, and designer Maira Vazeou has an obvious gift for working unobtrusive magic within the harsh constraints of the Fringe.

Set, as it is, in 19th-century Utah, the script might assume a little too much knowledge about Mormon belief for the average British crowd.  But even if you miss a few of the references, you’ll appreciate the themes: tolerance and zealotry, the isolation of outsiders, and the desire for revenge.  It’s a sad story, in the end, but it has an optimistic beauty to it too.  After Brighton, this show’s on the road to London – and while there’s certainly room for some tweaking, its impressive premiere bodes well.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.