‘Fringe theatre’ is a nebulous term that most people will be familiar with but perhaps struggle to define. Usually it conjures up images of a group of ex drama students, gamely staging a piece of new writing – on a zero budget – in a pub back-room, and with a set cobbled together from gruesome, randomly grabbed bits of furniture.
Originally based in London (now Manchester), Box of Tricks started as a fringe company, with crowd-funding their main income stream (they are now Arts Council blessed). Under the confident stewardship of Adam Quayle and Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder, they’ve been staging new work since 2006 (with over 20 shows under their belt), and to a consistently high standard. On the basis of latest piece, Under Three Moons, they have clearly transcended their modest beginnings; Box of Tricks is the real deal.
Written by Daniel Kanaber, Under Three Moons is a story of an unlikely male friendship, which starts at school and continues into adulthood. A model of succinctness, Kanaber’s play is 80 minutes long, and divided into three scenes (the film Moonlight is clearly an influence, in terms of mood and structure). We meet Mike and Paul on a school camping trip to France. At this point, they’re not really friends; they ended up sharing a school desk because their surnames begin with the same letter. There are intimations of low level bullying, with the sensitive, sensible Paul always the victim. Mike comes over as a clumsy, impressionable doofus, with no ambition.
The narrative jumps forward to a surfing weekend in Wales, with the pair in their twenties. A lot has changed; Mike has gotten his act together, and is studying at University. He’s the adult whilst Paul is all over the place, aimlessly drifting, with no apparent interests except casual drug use. He’s had the occasional meltdown, including a freak-out at a 60th birthday party for Mike’s mum. ‘You were on the table preaching polygamy when they brought out the cheeseboard,’ says a still embarrassed Mike.
Kanaber is a strong, funny writer, and knows these messy, sometimes contradictory characters inside out. Their roundedness makes it generally easy for the audience to fill in the gaps, and picture events which are happening in the background. It’s somewhat unfortunate that he overreaches himself in the last scene (with Mike and Paul now in their 30’s). A lot has happened in the intervening years – emigration, bereavement, marriage, and children. A joint business venture didn’t pan out as planned, and impacted on their friendship. There’s too much exposition in too short a time; it’s hard to believe there has been so little communication between them during the intervening years. It might have been better to spread these massive changes across another scene (Under Four Moons, perhaps?) It’s Kanaber’s only real mis-step.
What struck me most about Under Three Moons was the level of care and attention which it has received from director Quayle and his team (even the poster is coolly inspired; I would be happy to hang a copy on my wall). Staging is immaculate, with barely a wasted pause or gesture. Quayle is very strong on atmosphere; in the first scene, Mike and Paul walk to the edge of a hillside, and look down to a beach nightclub, listening to the distant pulsing music (composer Chris Hope makes a valuable contribution). Each is lost in his own thoughts. It’s a charged moment, suggestive of real life happening elsewhere, and to people better equipped to embrace its complexities.
Darren Kuppan (Paul) and Kyle Rowe (Michael) are both excellent. Michael arguably has the more interesting journey, and Rowe is particularly good at conveying a character who struggles to articulate his insecurities. The chemistry between Kuppan and Rowe appears effortless, though it’s clearly been worked at; I would be interested to see them work together again, in a different dramatic world.
Box of Tricks’ lucky charm is gifted designer, Katie Scott, who once again achieves small miracles. A set has to be compact enough to be loaded into a van for the next gig but Scott never lets this restriction stymie her ambition. The use of a glowing moon, star lights, and a revolving circular stage (also moon-shaped) is inspired, and adds another texture to the production.
This is a play about those moments when something magical happens; the rare occasions when two men overcome cultural conditioning, take off their masks, and reveal their vulnerabilities.
In the words of the late great Freddie Mercury – it’s a kind of magic.★ ★ ★ ★