15 February 2014

In Skagway at the Arcola Theatre

I have seen two separate plays in a day a few times but I think that this was the first time that I saw two at the same theatre.

My day out in Dalston was planned around seeing two plays at the Arcola theatre, Punishment Without Revenge and In Skagway (originally called The Goddess of Liberty).

I saw Punishment Without Revenge in the afternoon simply because it was longer and that meant less time to kill between performances (I was in Dalston, remember) and that I would be home earlier (home being the local pub to see Bungles Finger).

In Skagway was downstairs in Studio 2 and I was first in to claim the same seat as last time (for The Shape of Things) in the front row of the central bank of seats just to the right of the middle aisle.

There I was confronted by the interior of a humble shack in an Alaskan gold rush town in 1898 where the gold had all but run out. Trying to make their living there were two middle aged women of Irish stock, Frankie and May, and May's daughter, T-Belle.

One of the women had had some fame as a actress until hit by a stroke that confined her to a wheelchair, the other older woman looked after her while her daughter went out prospecting.

The grimness of the situation, the period, the focus on ordinary people and also the Irish accents immediately reminded me of the Eugene O'Neil Sea Plays. This impression never left and that should be taken as a high compliment to In Skagway and to Karen Ardiff who wrote it.

There was also a similar plot line with one of the plays, The Long Voyage Home, but I try to avoid spoilers so I won't say what that is.

In Skagway is the story of decline for both the town and for the women though they all struggle through it with some optimism and good humour to balance the lurking desperation. This is striking in the women with May being eternally optimistic even when horrible things happen (and they do) while her daughter T-Belle is more pessimistic/realistic about the diminishing gold and the approaching Winter. Frankie, meanwhile, strains to make herself understood at all as she is limited to featureless groans and uncertain pointing.

There are some flash-backs that explain a little about how the women came to be there having left Ireland together and Frankie having, eventually, found some success as an actress. The reason that the play was originally called The Goddess of Liberty is that was the performance that Frankie did that May talked about the most. It also reappears at the end of the play but in a rather different form.

What won me over to the play wholeheartedly was the atmosphere it generated; the grimness, the optimism, the poverty and the weather. It was like spying on a different world that was hard to understand when viewed from the comfort of modern-day London.

It took good acting to maintain that atmosphere and all four women (they had a visitor) were spot on. I also liked that they were all women too as they seem to be strangely absent from most frontier town stories. Men do get a mention (including T-Belle's lover) but they are only talked about and never seen.

The ending was anything but good but still the sense of optimism lingered as the next chapter in the women's lives lay there waiting to be opened.

In Skagway was a slug of pitiless hardship delivered with care and love. I liked it for its honest portrayal of the bad times and the uplifting feel of the good ones.

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