UEA’s Coast to Coast Theatre Company previewed their new comedy Nowt as Queer as Folk this week with a sold out performance in the Emmerson Studio at Norwich’s Maddermarket Theatre, before it heads to the Edinburgh Fringe for two weeks starting on Monday. The play depicts how residents of a small village threatened by a new housing development start to quarrel, and we see an old fashioned community rocked by the threat of change and the disruption of their rural idyll.
Writer Becky Pick began work on the play around a year ago, completing it early this year, with a crowdfunding campaign making the journey north of the border a reality. She told Concrete: “It’s a feel-good piece. I want people to come out thinking ‘that was fun!’ I think the point of it is, the amount of things that are blown out of proportion in small places is unbelievable and it’s quite funny because when you don’t have to think about things like money, the smallest things do become such a huge problem.” All the action takes place inside the traditional village hub of the local pub. The unmistakable, if minimal, staging of a simple bar and stools gives the first indications of the conservatism of the community. But any thoughts that the play itself will be a similarly quaint affair are shattered from the very start.
With the total actors numbering eight, it’s a big cast for a 45-minute production, but the characterisation is vivid enough that the audience immediately know where they stand with each individual. The play’s star turn comes from Alexandra Hayes as self-appointed community leader and all-round busybody Barbara. One of the play’s highlights is her hilariously pompous monologue, while throughout she consistently keeps up the unwittingly arrogant mannerisms and delivers a steady stream of comedy gold. Company co-founder Rohan Gotobed also stands out as the often-misnamed Bernard, a glorious pastiche of the hapless local who frequents most country village pubs.
Harry Benjamin as Dave, Barbara’s long-suffering husband, comes into the piece more as it wears on and he becomes suspicious of his wife, sparking some rib-tickling dialogue and providing a comedy foil for the other villagers. Nancy O’Melia provokes some of the loudest guffaws as Dave and Barbara’s gormless daughter Judy, who has to use her questionable brainpower to choose between morals and the chance to broaden her horizons – her monologue and an interaction with her mother are two of the play’s funniest moments.
Alex Grauwiler perfects the deadpan (and dead boring) conspiracy theorist Bill, whose marriage problems with the also-deadpan barmaid Deborah (Freya Bennett) add a clever, well-acted subplot. Second-division community figure Helen (Erin Clancy), and cynical, long-suffering planning officer Eileen (Emily Westaway) are both boldly portrayed by their actors, with Pick deserving of credit for her study of the dynamics of a group of Home Counties women.
The piece is littered with the customary farcical gags, innuendos and classic one liners from the middle-class, middle-England NIMBYs, playing to and capitalising on the stereotypes which are a gift to a comedic playwright. We even get a hearty sing-song or two. Some immaculately timed entrances and exits and a healthy dose of dramatic irony make this a side-splitting comedy which should have the Edinburgh audience laughing all the way to the council planning department.
While there’s a temptation for actors to lazily look for cheap laughs in farcical comedy, the entire cast – all UEA students or recent graduates – vividly maintain their distinct characters. This is what makes the gamble of a large company pay off so well, thanks to the actors as well as director and co-founder of Coast to Coast Molly Farley. Farley explained to Concrete: “Rohan and I got together in November 2017 and we both decided that we wanted to support regional theatre, regional voices. That’s what Coast to Coast is all about.” Farley makes her directorial debut at the Fringe after managing a production last year. “The Fringe is a hectic place, it’s difficult to get your voice heard. It’s so lovely to have had such an encouraging start before we head up. The cast are amazing. I’m really excited to get up there.”
Coast to Coast isn’t the only UEA-based company at this year’s Fringe. Bloody Livid are taking their comedy Grace, whilst Laughing Mirror will play two hilarious shows which they previewed last month at the Maddermarket, the farce Framed! and the raunchy but thought-provoking Good Vibes Only.
Nowt as Queer as Folk plays at The Perth Theatre in the Space on North Bridge, Edinburgh, from the 13th to the 25th August (excluding the 19th). To find out more about Coast to Coast visit their Facebook page.