By Zara Stokes Neustadt
Lulled into Grey’s Fountains Hall by sounds of Joep Beving, and a suspiciously Downton-abbey adjacent background tune, the stage for a group of young aristocrats is set before an intimately placed audience. Kit (Flynn-Harris Brannigan) genially meets us at the door. He will go on to jump in and out of the action, flirting or providing exposition as the character pleases – an ever-presence amidst the struggle and joys of male existence at the turn of the 20th century.
Lawrence Gartshore’s The Folly of Man offers up a tale of ‘brotherhood, depression and liberty’, enacted by the close circle of pathologically hard-up younger brother Augie (Andrew Mullins), lovelorn best friend (Lex Irish) and a ‘pickled’ priest, grappling with his clashing faith and identity (Anastasios Alexakis). Even without counting the players enriching the stories of the central young men, you may guess that Gartshore is ambitious in his range of subject. Considering the two intervals, you would be correct. However, the enthusiastic team, led by co-directors Irish and Ben Braje, and produced by Hidayat Malik, attacks the play with energy and emotion.
The interactions of Mullins, Irish, Harris Brannigan and Alexakis are pleasing to watch. Each succeeds in their naturalistic delivery and touchingly believable camaraderie, therefore achieving the key sense of brotherhood at the play’s heart. Alexakis is a particularly enjoyable presence – he is beyond deft with the outrageous comedy dealt to him, and uncannily convincing in spite of the character’s unique mode of expression. Though received by a rather mild audience, his comic instinct must be commended. Harris Brannigan is charming throughout, picking up the threads of the narrative and lightening the tone; additionally providing brilliant moments of humour. I wonder if they might have been slightly better distributed, however, a glib remark occurring after the play’s emotional crux jarring slightly. Having his speeches overlay set changes (managed by Matilda Bell) was a neat choice, and I would have liked to see it extend more widely throughout the play – especially towards the end, as pauses between scenes did drag. Mullins exudes a consistent desperation in relation to his penurious circumstances, building well to the devastating conclusion of his personal narrative. Irish successfully fluctuates between humorously sardonic and despairing. His eventual crisis was heart-stopping, attributed in part to his twisted facial expressions and hyperventilation. The breakdowns might have been better varied though – while establishing an interesting motif, having Mullins, Alexakis and Irish all rail at God in fairly quick succession became a touch repetitive.
The focus of the play explicitly was the men, with an emphasis on mental health, which was refreshing and necessary to see. Perhaps in line with this, the development of the play’s women left a little to be desired. Nevertheless, Alexa Thanni as Viola added some lovely moments of zest and humour to the play, while Olivia Clouting’s portrayal of Lucy was arrestingly sensitive. It was difficult to look away during her monologue, and her handling of her interactions with Irish was just wonderful. The cast was rounded out by Toby Harrison as Augie’s frightful father, Isabel Waller as brother Freddie and Braje as Ted.
The Folly of Man was a rich and enjoyable watch, clearly invested with much thought and effort from all. Though working with a minimal set-up, most of the staging was handled well, and lighting generally aided the performance. The star was the generous performances of the actors, helping to convey the difficult interiority of men during a time when expressing such feelings was fairly off-limits. Gartshore perhaps aims to tackle too many narratives at once, yet the instances of brilliant wit and dialogue do shine. If an intimate peak at high-class society, or a wish to charitably support men’s mental health appeals, then I can recommend a visit to Fountains Hall for Phoenix’s The Folly of Man.
Image credit: Phoenix Theatre Company