'All Things Considered'
By Ben Brown
By Charles Hutchinson - August 2015
BEN Brown's first full-length play, All Things Considered, has lodged in the memory bank of Esk Valley Theatre artistic director Mark Stratton ever since he saw its 1996 premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
Under Alan Ayckbourn's leadership, the Scarborough theatre had given Tim Firth his big break with similar foresight in its 1992 commission of NeviIle's Island. As chance would have it, revivals of All Things Considered and Neville's Island are now running opposite each other; Brown's play at Glaisdale, near Whitby, and Firth's middle-management misadventure as part of the SJT's 60th anniversary season.
Neville's Island has played plenty of Yorkshire theatres since its debut, but Brown's play has not done so, all the more surprising in the light of the award-winning success of his later work Larkin With Women.
Enter Mark Stratton and the consistently wonderful Esk Valley Theatre. Not only has Stratton broken the moorland company's mould by expanding his usual summer cast of two or three to six but also he has engaged Bill Champion to lead the company. Champion by name, he is a champion actor too, whose Stephen Joseph Theatre repertory work hit a peak in the multiple interlinking plays of Ayckbourn's Intimate Exchanges.
All Things Considered is a comedy, albeit a comedy about suicide, and yes, it is dead funny, right down to the plastic bag over the head, the pills, the whisky and the gun, but Brown is not being flippant.
Like Ayckbourn before him in 1985's Woman In Mind, Brown mines humour with bleak sensibility from suicidal contemplation, with no less brio in his writing, where he frames one man's desperate desire to end his life in a comedy of modern manners with the pace of a farcical sitcom.
Champion's David Freeman is an Oxbridge professor of philosophy who has just published his latest book to the usual indifference. He has decided, with his customary formidable powers of reasoning, that The End should now be his own. After Matters Of Life And Death, his work is complete, life no longer matters; it is time to put down Plato, his dog, and exit himself, Freeman freed. The End.
If only it could be that simple. The living room of David Freeman's college flat Ð designed by Ruby Savage in the familiar wood-panelled style Ð is more like a carousel, where people endlessly enter and exit. An electrician (Tom Bevan), a lecherous lecturer (David Chafer), the college priest (Bevan again), an American researcher (Clara Perez), a department secretary (Alison Darling) and a broadsheet hack (Rachel Barry) all want something from him, leaving suicide suspended. "We are always looking for plays that tackle difficult subjects and stimulate debate in an intelligent, witty and thought-provoking way," said Stratton in his What's On interview, and All Things Considered does exactly that. Especially in Champion's typically understated depiction of the entirely rational, clear and free-thinking Freeman, unencumbered by the need for politeness or English reserve any more.
This is a classically constructed, character-driven piece of living-room sitcom with a pin-sharp cast, but better still, it not only stays at least one step ahead of the audience with pleasing slipperiness but it asks philosophical questions too. In Stratton's summation, Brown's play contends that we should be able to determine our own destiny. That is for you to decide, but if your reviewer could have one wish, it would be that All Things Considered is destined to succeed this summer and not return to the deathly quiet of the backwaters afterwards.
By Emily Thwaite - August 2015
'ALL Things Considered', by Ben Brown, is entertaining appreciative houses at Esk Valley Theatre, Glaisdale this month.
At the heart of the play is the deeply serious subject of suicide, but this comedy's humour will appeal to many - 'Life is so peculiar' is the introductory song, followed by pleasing word play for the knowing audience such as "I've got a few minutes to kill" and "We all have to go sometime".
The world of the central character, David Freeman, played by Bill Champion, is academia - an introverted, wood-panelled existence where the written word reigns supreme. David rarely goes out; and, according to his ex-wife, cares very little for other people. He is bored with life, this ennui only abating when he comes alive in animatedly talking about his latest book - Matters of Life and Death. A philosophy professor, he believes that people (but not dogs?) should be allowed to determine the time of their own 'exit' - topical, in view of our increasingly ageing population. A few characters in his world care about him, though. The nauseatingly lecherous English academic Ronnie, played convincingly by David Chafer, is redeemed only by the honesty of his need for David's friendship. Downtrodden librarian Margaret is movingly played by Alison Darling; and American academic Laura, played by Clara Perez, displays grinning enthusiasm in philosophical discussions with him, as well as admitting to eroticising professors. Sexual and physical references, in the script and in Mark Stratton's direction, naturally add to the humour of the show. Journalist Joanna (an ex-Goth, nice touch for the Whitby area) is played cleverly by Rachel Barry, blending sarcasm, outspokenness and contrition all in the search for a good story.
The second act develops the ideas around David's suicide attempts - the most interesting part of the play. The illustration of 'justified belief', about sheep and dogs, will stay with me. And ideas from Kant, Plato, Socrates and Freud are all here. Tom the chaplain, played very sincerely by Tom Bevan (who also plays the hapless electrician), believes in life. New life trumps everything. The ending of this show is bittersweet.
A comedy about suicide sounds like a contraction in terms but in Ben Brown's play the subject of suicide has never been so funny or so disturbing especially when a professor of ethics is planning to end his life. All Things Considered was premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough in 1996 when the writer was twenty seven years old. He had read about a professor ending his life at the age of forty nine who wasn't terminally ill or depressed but thought it was a good time to go, rather than waiting for declining years. So it was to Glaisdale to see this play once again after so many years. Readers of Curtain Call will know that one evening in August your reviewer travels to the Esk Valley Theatre. This year the drive to Glaisdale was once again a pleasure with snoozing sheep on the moor road and time to admire the purple heather just coming in to full bloom.
This year's production is really special as there are six cast members headed by Bill Champion who has played many times at the SJT Scarborough. How encouraging to see the 'House Full' sign at the door and producer Sheila Carter welcoming patrons to the theatre. Professor David (Bill Champion) has decided it is time to end his life at fifty. He has just had his dog put down and is now ready to begin the process of dying. The pills are ready, the whiskey is on the table and the polythene bag is poised on top of his head. This lengthy, dramatic silence is suddenly broken by a voice on the telephone answering machine. 'How's life'. From that moment Ben Brown's play explodes in the time honoured theatre of comedy.
As assorted visitors drop in we learn that his mother died recently and his ex wife has sensationally criticised him and his love making in her latest book. Despite all this he still claims that his death wish is a rational decision. He keeps being distracted by Tom (Tom Bevan) the university chaplain and the lecherous Ronnie (David Chafer) who wants to discuss his love life. In comes Laura (Clara Perez), who is looking for help with her research and Margaret (Alison Darling), who captures the loneliness of the faithful librarian. Joanna (Rachel Barry) an ex graduate and now a journalist is waiting to sensationalise the suicide story and his wife's book.
Mark Stratton's choice of play is perfect for Esk Valley as he directs his six characters with superb comic timing while allowing them to deliver their sharply contrasting philosophies of life with Bill Champion and Alison Darling giving acting performances that are truly life enhancing.
In 2005 actor Mark Stratton and choreographer Sheila Carter set up Esk Valley Theatre with nightly performances of their chosen play throughout the month of August in The Robinson Institute, Glaisdale. With the help of the Arts Council England, Scarborough Borough Council, Create, The Normanby Trust and many local private and public sponsors the month of August becomes a huge success.
Not only does the audience applaud the wonderful actors on stage, the designer Ruby Savage and the director but the huge army of volunteers must be applauded too as they help to make this theatre visit a truly rural theatrical experience.