The press on Lubkinfinds
Time Spent On Trains
The Guardian Theatre Blog
I've almost total recall of Elizabeth Kuti's Time Spent On Trains, which conjured up the relationship between a mother and her autistic son with tender accuracy
The Guardian 4 Stars ****
A set of intertwined fishy tales spanning the centuries on a Suffolk shingle spit makes for entrancing viewing
Catch of the day
In the early 1970s during the cold war, Orford Ness, a shingle spit in Suffolk, was home to a secret American radar experiment. But the spit's history reaches further back: there is an account from the 12th century of a wild man of the sea captured off the Ness.
These stories become entwined in this exquisitely couched trio of monologues by Elizabeth Kuti that swirl around one another, catching each other's tails like mermen frolicking in the surf. This slow burn of a play initially gives us Mab, a servant at the 12th-century Orford Castle fascinated by the fish-like human imprisoned in the keep. Her story connects with that of callow young Australian scientist, Ben, working for the Americans on the Ness in 1973, trying to discover the unexplained source of aural interference in the radar system. To him, it sounds like a scream – or the noise could be simply a manifestation of the guilt he feels for his failure to prevent the death of a fellow student five years previously. In a piece in which time is never linear, and where past and present co-exist, Mab and Ben's stories are caught in a net with that of Mog, a young woman who, in 2003, is facing her 30th birthday and a very big decision about the future.This is storytelling theatre at its simplest, and it's always measured, never showy. Initially, it seems as if Mab is too garrulous, Ben a wee bit irritating, and Mog brittle and self-obsessed. Perhaps the themes of difference and accountability are a little too neatly plaited. But the performances – particularly Eva Traynor as Mog – are spot on, and gradually I found myself totally immersed in these shimmering, fishy tales from the depths of time and human experience.
Time Out 4 Stars **** Critic's Choice
One great thing about Suffolk is that parts of it feel like you’re entering the Middle Ages. Playwright Elizabeth Kuti has picked up on this weirdness and used a local myth about a wild man found in the sea at Orford to construct a brand new legend of her own.
It’s a three-way drama led by a serving girl who witnesses the wild man being fished from the sea at Orford Ness in 1173. Then there’s an Australian physicist working on radar in 1973 who hears unexplained screams from the ocean. And finally a local teacher in 2003 planning an abortion following a failed affair hears screaming, not only from the sea but also from the depths of her amniotic fluid.
This is a fascinating and lyrical piece of writing weaving three monologues in different idioms – Suffolk dialect, Aussie nerdishness and contemporary RP. Kuti has a remarkable ear for detail and vivid images flicker throughout, opening vistas in her characters's accounts of mystical experiences on the Suffolk coast. And in line with a quantum theory of time expounded by the Aussie scientist, Kuti brings together past and present as though they were coexistent.
This lyrical precision is matched by Robert Price’s subtle and shadowy production on a black box set eerily lit by Matt Leventhall. Jessica Carroll moves dexterously through the murky mind of the medieval serving girl. Brett Brown meanwhile is a painfully tortured Australian geek – the eyebrows behind his specs pleading for approval. And Eva Traynor is no less precise in her dissection of her agonies during a dark night of the soul. It made me want to book an Orford B&B immediately.
Exeunt 4 Stars ****
Three narratives interlock, soaked in the East Anglian dialect and sea, and scaled over with glimmering insights.
Elizabeth Kuti’s new play layers her research into the history of the coast, castle, and mysterious island of Orford with personal stories separated by decades and centuries, making for a subtle, modern look at the ways in which people and places wear away and rub off on each other.
The trio of stories is elegantly structured in patterning pairs. Two are set in the past, two are women, two are relatives, two are touched by momentous historical events. Mab is a leather aproned, twelfth century castle servant who’s strangely drawn to the wild man captured in fishing nets, then held in the basement. Ben is an Australian visiting scientist, come to fix the newly installed, malfunctioning radar system that’s protection against the Soviet threat far over the waters, but caught up by a local romance. The present day Mog is reaching 30, a primary school teacher enduring the unhappy aftermath of an affair. Almost a fourth character, Orford Ness is an island off the coast that’s a place of mystery, sanctuary and treachery; used for Cold War military experiments, the National Trust Guide, in the programme notes, warns that “it will always be a hostile and potentially dangerous place.” As the narratives spill out, more and more links and shared images are piled on, reflected or refracted in pooling sea water from character to character. The links amplify, to become supernatural, in the subtlest possible sense – a kind of rural psychogeography where Orford’s small, distinctive landscape is embedded with invisible emotional and historical markers.
The actors share a stage, but their speeches are monologues, interacting only in the text. Matt Leventhall’s lighting design alternates between dappled water, a densely thorough blackout and pooling light that switches the trio on and off one by one, like light bulbs – a tight spotlight that puts full focus on their performances. Jessica Carroll’s Mab is wonderfully charismatic, her thick rolling accent making sense of the distinctive rhythms of speech that are relics of a lost world, where witches and the devil are as real as a mop and drudgery. Brett Brown’s endearing Ben stops just shy of caricature, bumbling his way through his hunt for sonic anomalies, and the local-gal-in-the-pub romance that has a faint whiff of cheese and onion crisps. Without the same historical heft, Mog’s present day narrative feels less distinctive, slightly marooned – but Eva Traynor’s performance is still completely engaging, her unclouded, mundane desolation closer to the surface. The escalating links are seductive, but sometimes so neat, so thoroughly knitted in that when they make their inevitable appearances, they feel like the punchlines to wry black jokes. The stories of these three lost souls are shaken free from any traces of ponderousness in a zigzagging race over coast paths and into the waves. But this production’s slick, pacy polish still has enough room for thought to be completely absorbing – a shattered mirror on the Suffolk coast, holding stories and memories in mesmerising tension.
Inspired by the legend of the Wild Man of Orford, Elizabeth Kuti’s new play - first presented as part of the RADA Festival earlier this year - takes the form of three interlinking monologues, all set in the same Suffolk coastal town.
Moving between the 12th, 20th and 21st centuries, it deftly weaves together three stories, of lonely people who come to find that their lives are unexpectedly connected, and that time is a fluid thing, like water. Mab is a servant girl who witnesses the capture and imprisonment of what the superstitious town’s people believe to be merman, Ben is a scientist working at the Orford Ness radar station during the Cold War, and Mog is a young teacher who, faced with having to make a heart-wrenching decision, returns to Orford, her childhood home.
Voices are vital to the Robert Price’s production, the music of the Suffolk dialect, the twang of the Australian accent. This anchors the play, creating a strong sense of place, one that spans the centuries. Sitting on a bare black stage, each of the three actors give vivid performances, rolling with the waves of the words, grief glinting beneath the surface. Kuti’s play is full of echoes, of mythic imagery, and while there’s perhaps one coincidence too many, one narrative twist too far, it remains an inventive, evocative and occasionally moving piece of writing.
Performance Reviewed 4 Stars ****
Whilst West End musicals and high profile productions are relying on increasingly more developed technology to bring shocks and wonders to an audience with an ever shortening attention span, it is a relief and a pleasure to view some simple storytelling. Elizabeth Kuti’s new play ‘Fishskin Trousers’ follows three interwoven tales taken from different eras in the history of Orford, Suffolk. It’s primary focus is the Wild Man of Orford, a strange water dwelling being who was captured by fishermen in the time of King Henry II, and the impact his discovery has upon the life of Mab, a lonely spinster who feels just as spurned from the community as the Wildman himself. The second story tells of Ben, a young Australian radar expert posted on Orford Ness at the height of the Cold War to develop project ‘Cobra Mist’, an advanced ‘over-the-horizon’ system designed to track aircraft in Eastern Europe. His story, especially of his past, of a horrific experience at his US university, the courting of a local barmaid and frustration at his superiors are lighter in tone than the other two and provide some comic relief before the last tale. This concerns Mog, a pregnant primary school teacher of the modern day who, having been told that the foetus shows abnormalities, is given the option to discontinue the pregnancy. Still in the throes of decision her torn mind directs her back home to Orford where she battles with depression and guilt. The three tales are beautifully woven into each other, connecting in an unforced and gentle manner with honest and brilliantly timed revelations about each character that come frequently enough to leave the audience transfixed but are neither overbearing nor crass.
The play is delivered delightfully and refreshingly. With only three actors and no mime, no props and barely any set, director Robert Price creates what no amount of gimmicks could ever create. Three ages, three stories intertwining using only the skill of his actors. Without any distractions, the audience is left to focus upon the characters and fully enter the world that emerges. Jessica Carroll introduces the play as Mab, gently masking natural intelligence under the mask of a simpleton. It is perhaps the most difficult role of the three as she sets the scene of the town for the other actors to build on but Carroll, with the proficiency of a bard, uses the lyrical text to draw the audience into the Medieval Orford. Brett Brown, with his piercing stare and likeable charm along with a strong Australian accent, perfectly works with his more comical role, easing tension that builds up during Carroll’s eerie tale. However he is disarmingly quick with his transitions to the more tragic pieces of his story that shock the audience with their swift and brutal conclusions. As Mog, Eva Traynor delivers her account with heart breaking realism. She is fantastic to listen to but equally interesting to watch, minute changes in her visage subtly matching the story with disturbing accuracy.
Watch out for Elizabeth Kuti; watch out for Robert Price; watch out for all of the actors. ‘Fishskin Trousers’ is a wonderful, original production which will hopefully continue showing after the Festival.