August is usually a duff month for new theatre in London but fortunately Joy Wilkinson’s powerful drama at the Finborough bucks this particular trend. Using a cast of three, her play presents a compelling examination of clashing ideologies in a Northern town: the battle between entrenched right-wing views and nave but well-intentioned local council-sanctioned attempts at multiculturalism.
When Melanie first meets Railton, they’re upside down on a fairground ride. It’s too fast for her, she’s scared and anxious, but Railton isn’t bothered – his father was a fairground man, it’s in his blood. He calms her down, consoles her; they hit it off and head back to his.
The considerable differences between them and their political outlooks only become apparent the following morning. She’s the daughter of the principal of the local college and he’s the son of a known BNP activist. She’s co-ordinating a community fair to draw a veil over recent race riots and emphasise the town’s multicultural make up; Railton thinks the only thing worth celebrating about their town is its Anglo-Saxon past.
Wilkinson takes what could have been a very simplistic premise and invigorates it with subtle characterisations and surprising parallels. Melanie doesn’t really believe her ‘Fair for the Future’ will solve any problems, but her dad has pressurised her into organising the event; and, though capable of aggression and arrogance, Railton isn’t simply a racist thug, but a man trying to honour his late father by blindly holding onto his view of the world.
The acting from the three cast members is top-notch. Matthew Wilson is excellent as Railton: skin-headed and imposing, intelligent, but frustrated; though Railton can speak persuasively and passionately about the things he believes in you can see the conflict at work within him. Though her Camden street market shoulder bag and veggie whinging occasionally undercut her arguments, Melanie is equally layered as a character and Rebecca Everett signals this admirably. Hers is a fresh and winning performance that engages throughout. As Railton’s ghostly father, Johnathan Jaynes is also good – providing a suitably malevolent presence.
Though Wilkinson clearly believes in progress and the need to break away from the dated and damaging views of our parents in order to achieve this, she never demonises Railton. Her play remains a scrupulously balanced piece of theatre filled with exciting, poetic dialogue. She misses a trick in not ending it earlier however; the last scene feels tacked on and unnecessary. Some of the later interchanges between Railton and his dad are also a bit heavy-handed.
These are small points. Director Helen Eastman keeps the pacing tight and some clever sound design and lighting make full use of the intimate Finborough stage. Fair may be a small production but it deals with powerful, topical themes in a refreshingly subtle and intelligent manner and, as such, it’s the perfect antidote for theatregoers currently suffering from Edinburgh envy.