Coast to Coast Theatre Company are a new venture formed by students currently studying at the UEA. If their premiere production is anything to go by we will be hearing a lot more about them in years ahead. The company was started by Molly Farley and Rohan Gotobed, who together also created the story for About Lester, which is written and directed by Rohan.
This is a complex and very topical show, which looks at the abusive relationships that we now know have been all too common in the film-making industry following the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and others, and the courageous ‘me too’ hashtag movement from the many victims of powerful men in the film industry. The film draws many reference points from the Kevin Spacey film ‘American Beauty’ and includes some contemporary media events that give a chilling perspective on events we now understand more fully. The male character at the heart of the story is also called Lester Burnham, as was Spacey in the film.
The structure of the play is complicated, perhaps too much. We flip back and forward in time over a 26-year timescale with a pair of agent provocateurs separating scenes – an angel and a devil of the collective conscience played by Charley Hawthorne and Aimee De-Ritis. The play is staged in the round in an anonymous space in the Arts part of the UEA teaching wall. If you are not familiar with the University layout give plenty of time to find it – I was directed to three different places before finding the right one just in time. I think even Denys Lasdun might get lost in the UEA campus today.
Acting in the round gives no hiding place and director Rohan Gotobed makes good use of this, with a minimum of unnecessary gesture or stage presence. The very capable cast were understandably a little tense on a premiere performance, but soon got into their stride handling this detailed script and plot. Polly Pullen was Carolyn – a stage agent in the first half and a headmistress in Act Two. Her assistant Jane is played by Erin Clancy. Lester (Charlie Douglas) has been revealed as being guilty of inappropriate behaviour with a young woman, and it soon becomes clear that Jane and her friend Angela (Nancy O’Melia) have previous experience of the over-handy Lester. The cast is completed by Arthur Maund as Fitts, friend and colleague to Lester.
The first act is set in the glitzy world of showbusiness, with Lester as the big star returned from disgrace, whereas Act Two sees the same characters transposed to the drama section of an all-girls school. Here the relationships between drama teacher Lester and his female colleagues and pupils come under scrutiny as he steps beyond the line of what would now be considered appropriate behaviour. The clear message is that abusive relationships are not confined to Hollywood but pervade all professions and workplaces if allowed to.
I come from a generation that was young in the 1970s and I have seen a huge and long overdue step-change towards the equal treatment of women although there is still much to do. This play seemed to me to have one very strong message, that this generation (the cast and crew are all 18-21 year olds) soundly reject the moral values of my generation and will do better and not turn away or pass by when abuse takes place. Film and TV often set the moral benchmark for a generation, and if they create work within an abusive environment it is hardly surprising that their moral guidance is often so regressive and unpalatable.
This is a clever play, and all the cast do a brilliant job in bringing their characters to life in some challenging scenes. It is a play with a clear message, and one that cannot be shared widely enough. The complex structure made it a bit hard for me to follow at first, and I would welcome either some clearer signs within the script about this structure or a simpler approach which allowed even more focus on the issue at the heart of the play. I have spent the hours since I saw this play telling everyone I encounter to go and see it – it is one of the most rewarding and engaging dramas that I have seen for a long time.
© Julian Swainson 2018
Thursday 7th June – Saturday 9th June, 8pm start (with 1hr 40 running time)
Venue: Arts 2.84, Arts Building, University of East Anglia
More information about tickets is available on the website: https://www.ctctheatrecomp.co.uk/