Review

Messiah On The Frigidaire

Ros Barnes, Jeff Davies and Kate Ayres in
Messiah On The Frigidaire

The choice of "Messiah on the Frigidaire", to open COPS season of 2010 - 2011, could be said to have been a brave leap in the dark by Director Andy Lee. This very new American play has been performed at several venues in the States over the last twelve months, but made its European stage debut at COPS. However, the choice of the play showed not just courage, but Andy's astute insight into what could make very successful theatre.

"Messiah on the Frigidaire" is set in the south of the United States -a trailer park in Elroy South Carolina to be exact. Given that address, one might reasonably expect the humour to be generated by taking a mocking look at the lives of 'white trash 'and red-necks' , often portrayed as trailer park inhabitants.

One has to admit that some of the play's hilarity is derived from the trailer park tenants and their lives, as depicted by writer John Cuthbertson, but the writer is gentle in his treatment of them; never mocking or malicious in his observations. As the play develops, we, the audience, come to realise that the characters in the play are not caricatures, but real people with genuine concerns and aspirations. Rather than objects of ridicule, they are shown to be victims of the society in which they live; their dreams thwarted by their lack of means. Means which are withheld because of their address.

well-paced, focused and precise throughout

The play is very funny but Cuthbertson does not shy away from showing the less savoury side of this southern culture ; the hypocrisy, fake piety sanctimoniousness and money grubbing. The end result is a thoughtful balanced piece of theatre, which came to life with conviction under Andy Lee's direction. The production was well-paced, focused and precise throughout.

Dwanne and Lou Ann Hightower have always dreamed of bettering themselves, but after ten years of getting no-where, disillusionment has set in. Lou Ann in particular is depressed and anxious and confides in her best-friend, next door neighbour Betsy, that there ought to be more to life than living in the 'best trailer park in town' All of Dwanne's schemes to get rich have not come to fruition and he seems to have settled for beer and television.

From the start Ros Barnes as Lou Ann showed us that she was anxious in what she sees as a dead end life. Lou Ann is afraid of losing her faith and her marriage and we worry and sympathise with her all the way. As the drama unfolds, Ros carefully built up her anxiety and disillusionment, until the climax in Act 2 when she breaks. She never faltered in her depiction of the unhappy wife, keeping the audience focused on what was at stake. This was a carefully controlled and sustained portrayal.

Dwanne, played by Jeff Davis comes across to the audience in the beginning, as a 'typical' dumb, layabout husband, and this Jeff showed us admirably. I feel though, that his clean and tidy appearance in the opening scene was a little at odds with the character we were expecting to see. From the start all his tee shirts and hats were pristine. It might have been more effective if he had become cleaner and tidier as the play progressed, illustrating how his confidence is increasing.

His body language, was especially effective particularly when trying to be bravely aggressive; the staring eyes, the shoulders back and taut and the forward jutting jaw were very apt. This was in sharp contrast to his sympathetic and sensitive playing in his scene with Betsy and as a caring husband to Lou Ann.

Brash and bold Betsy, played by Kate Ayres, is the childhood friend of the serious Lou Ann. Betsy was in her youth, the town slut, earning the title of 'Backseat Betsy' - a title which she now celebrates. In sharp contrast to the disillusioned Lou Ann, Betsy knows herself and is happy in her own skin. Content to be living in a trailer next door to her best friend, happy in her genuine affection for her husband (whom we never see). Kate Ayres demonstrated admirably the skills needed to give the part of Betsy the breadth and depth it demanded: loud-mouthed slut, loyal and devoted friend and 'Spanish' seer and crowd raiser.

As Lou Ann and Betsy, Kate and Sue complimented one another and it was evident that there was great empathy between the two as they played an excellent and well-balanced counterpoint to each other.

All of them delivered hilarious and pithy remarks to and about the 'better' people of the town, with wonderful timing

The three characters ably set the trailer park scene firmly in place. All of them delivered hilarious and pithy remarks to and about the 'better' people of the town, with wonderful timing, and the audience loved it. The culmination of Act 1 takes the action as far as the acceptance that there is potential in the reflection of the 'Jesus' on the refrigerator, and we see Dwanne preparing to sell bread and wine to the punters he expects. This is despite the chilling encounter with the Reverend Hodges who is consulted by Lou Ann on the genuineness of the reflection. He is the first outsider Cuthbertson introduces into the trailer park setting, using him to represent some aspects of the bigotry present in the society. The Reverend is not only dismissive about the apparition, but effectively dismisses Lou Ann from the church she loves and believes in, because in his opinion, she doesn't 'fit in'. Later, he callously changes his opinion when along with the 'fat cats' of the town he sees the financial potential in the phenomenon. Barry Lee has played several 'men of the cloth' in his time, but never one as unsympathetic and cold as this one. He managed to deliver the exact balance between being politely pious and unchristian.

In Act two the play opens out. We (the audience) are part of the gathering crowd. Through the characters of Hodges, and more particularly the odious Larry Wilkinson, played by Paul Morton, the audience is shown not only bigotry, but pride, avarice, false piety and prejudice. Paul, through his characterisation, brought over-bearing, over-confidence, and greed across in weighty measure. He seemed to take up the whole set and overwhelm the other characters. His parting shot of 'Trash' was nastily delivered, which makes it all the more pleasing when Betsy gets the better of him.

The play as it preceeds, takes on darker tones, the climax of which, is the appearance of the superstitiously religious mother and her blind son. The scene is short and simple, but its impact is immense. The sight of the child being beaten by his mother for not having faith and not loving Jesus is horrifying. The cast brought this scene successfully to climax, giving Ros, as Lou Ann just enough disgust and anger to take the shears to those 'redtips' once and for all. However, I feel that the audience would have been more shocked had the mother, (Loretta Freeman) and boy (Sinclair Davis), stayed on stage until Loretta had delivered the line using the word 'evil' ' to describe the poor blind boy. It conjures up a frightening image and having read the play; I was waiting for this word and felt it lost impact coming just from the semi darkness of the steps.

One actor did not have his name on the credits, which was sufficient for me to assume that Andy and his cast wanted the audience to be surprised by his appearance and I thought this worked well. The stranger (Alex Brace) delivered his lines of reassurance quietly, and with just enough credibility for us to ask 'Is this Jesus?' Lou Ann and Dwanne's last scene would suggest that he might well have been. The play ends on a hopeful note; Lou Ann seems to get the answers she was seeking and Dwanne the confidence to work on new schemes. One wishes them well in exploiting the latest image on the Frigidaire - Elvis!

Time must be made to comment on the excellent set. The trailer, dominating the whole of the stage was exactly right. It was suitably scruffy, had the all-important four figure number prominently displayed, and the leaves and other detritus on and under the porch, created just the right atmosphere. I really believed that Dwanne was watching television on the other side of the window and was disappointed not to find a fitted living room there when I peered round the set(I should know better by now!).

The refrigerator was magnificent and suitably dominating. Congratulations to the lighting technician for the images. At first you had to work hard to see what they were, especially Elvis - but it was right that they were so.

A play which demands accents (especially the American Deep South), can be tricky, and inhibit actors, so my comments will be brief. In the main everyone convinced admirably, but occasionally, and I do mean occasionally, clipped delivery of vowels and word endings hinted at English rather than southern drawl.

Many, many congratulations to Andy Lee and his cast and crew for such a great evening. Who would have thought that a play about the reflections of streetlights shining though trees, could have been so amusing and thought provoking?

As Lou Ann says 'Mysterious ways ... mysterious ways'.

Maggie Smith is a retired English and drama teacher who has lived in taught in Hertfordshire for over 40 years. She has been involved in amateur dramatics since she was a child. She has acted and directed amateur productions for several dramatic groups over many years and still enjoys treading the boards. After retiring, she began working for EDEXCEL - the Public Examination Board - travelling all over Hertfordshire and neighbouring counties examining GCSE and GCE Drama.

Photograph: Steve Beeston