The autobiographical monologue is potentially the knottiest of theatrical art forms to get right. If we see theatres function to in effect blend the two p’s together, the political and the personal, a form that has the potential to get lost in the personal at the expense of the political is loaded with issues that can trip up any artist.
Holly Beasley-Garrigan, writer and performer of Opal Fruits, playing at Weston Studio after an Edinburgh run at the Pleasance, appears aware of the complexities this work poses. After all her ACE funding is in place because she is making a show about the working classes, and she touches on the complex relationship modern theatre has with their fetishization of council estate stories. A queer, working-class female Beasley-Garrigan talks in her program bio about reclaiming spaces for stories from artists like her. Yet arguably there is a bigger challenge, these stories are now seen in studio theatres across the country. It’s the main stage where these stories still struggle to be seen. If at one point she rails at the idea of independent theatres’ inability to feed a family, it struggles to ascertain how this work could break into the mainstream. During a sold-out performance, the space crackles with a love that allowed the piece to take flight but also difficult not to feel like its playing to the converted, the audience at The Lion King, a musical that this show touches upon, brings in a diversity that this or indeed almost all independent theatre can’t begin to touch.
Maybe it’s unfair to expect a show shaped for Edinburgh, 70-minute run time and all, to be able to find answers but here it edges towards asking the questions and then shying away from them. It remains messy and unresolved politically.
Personally, though the piece comes to life, telling a beautiful inter-generational familial story of generations of women all being brought up in the same estate. With the Opal fruit flavours standing in for Grandmothers, sisters, and nieces, and recordings of the voices filling in the blanks, we get a sense of the dynamic that turned Beasley-Garrigan into the artist she is today. Thrust into the world of drama school where her classmates wear sports gear ironically, she finds even the poor can perform Shakespeare and ballet, even if this doesn’t cut the mustard with classmates who are working security at Tesco.
With stories of ‘Keef’ and ‘Mick, the Crim’ sawn-off shotguns and caravan dismemberment it could all threaten to get a bit, Guy Ritchie. Yet it’s family that continues to be the connecting through line of the piece. Through squabbles and misunderstandings, bafflement, and acceptance, what comes out is the complexity of being a working-class artist, feeling both pride and tackling the sense of not belonging in a world where privilege rises to the top.
Stripped literally in white underwear and metaphorically in revealing vulnerability Beasley-Garrigan is an incendiary charismatic presence throughout. Under Maisie Newman’s carefully considered production, it never drops into longueurs and lands several cracking set pieces that entwine with its intellectual rigorousness. Its climax when The Lion King and Singing In The Rain merge with Garage beats is particularly thrilling.
It may not be able to answer some of the questions its set-up suggests it’s going to, but there is no doubt that Opal Fruits, four years on from its first showing at Vaults Festival is worth every penny that ACE originally granted it. Now time to get the main house.