The Suffolk town of Halesworth might look idyllic but don’t be fooled, there’s darkness lurking behind the half-timbered facades. This year’s High Tide festival of new writing tackles everything from heroin addiction to Hillsborough, bullying to black actors in “blackface”. You couldn’t accuse it of being twee, although you might wish for a bit of light relief. Small-scale doesn’t have to equal issues-driven.
The stand-out show this year is Neighbors, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ daring, funny, occasionally gasp-inducing play about “post-racial” America, which premiered in New York in 2010 and which transfers to Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre next week. Steven Atkinson’s deft production takes place on a split stage. Upfront is the bland, beige suburban home of Richard, a black Classics lecturer and Jean, his white, stay-at-home wife who have recently moved into the area with their stroppy daughter, Melody. Across the stage is the home of their new neighbours, the Crows, decked out with a music-hall proscenium arch and footlights.
The Crows are a family of black minstrels with names like Topsy and Sambo who parade around in blackface make-up and grass skirts, hollering about fried chicken and Tyler Perry movies while rehearsing their new variety show, Coonapalooza, starring youngest son, Jim (yes, Jim Crow). While Jean and Melody befriend their new neighbours, Richard instantly sees them as a threat, forcing his family to address previously unspoken issues.
It is all pretty shocking, not least in the vaudeville interludes in which each Crow enacts a crude sexual routine with a watermelon, a banana or dangling genitalia. But when the shock wears off – and in today’s post-Book of Mormon world, that can be rather quickly – it is a fairly conventional exploration of race relations and identity in which Jacobs-Jenkins throws a heap of ideas at the wall to see which stick. Some, like a heavy-handed strand on Greek tragedy, don’t. Others, like Topsy’s medley of black cultural stereotypes, do – and exhilaratingly so. Either way, I can’t stop thinking about it.
There are lower-level shocks to be found in Smallholding. Chris Dunkley’s play starts promisingly, and intriguingly, enough with a young couple, Andy and Jen, moving into their new farm cottage with dreams of growing parsnips and garlic. This is “a new start, from the roots up” but Andy is behaving very strangely, making tea without the teabag and spending money on a non-existent tractor. And there’s a mysterious bucket in the middle of the living room floor. Once we learn that Andy is a recovering junkie, the tension flows out of the piece and the second half is a rather unremitting spiral down into grimness. Still, Patrick Sandford’s dynamic production captures something of the stifling nature of both small-town life and addiction.
Elsewhere, teen dreams, or more accurately nightmares, are the theme. Moth is an unpindownable oddity by Declan Greene about two misfits, which transfers to London’s Bush Theatre later this month. When Sebastian, the school sci-fi geek, is betrayed by his one friend Claryssa, the school emo, and subjected to a vicious bullying, he sets out on a divine mission to save mankind. There’s a hint of Constellations to the ever-shifting narrative in which Stacey Gregg and Jordan Misfud play a whole cast of characters. Prasanna Puwanarajah directs in slick, filmic style, making exciting use of theatrical special effects, but the piece itself remains rather overwrought.
There are revivals, too, for two excellent monologues - Luke Barnes’ brilliant punch-to-the-guts Bottleneck, voiced by a young Liverpool fan, and Chewing Gum Dreams. The latter, written and performed by sparky motormouth Michaela Coel, is a by turns hilarious and disturbing romp through school, sex, first love and teen pregnancy set to a garage soundtrack. It felt like watching the birth of an exciting new talent – just what you’d hope to see at High Tide.