TRAILER/trash – Theatre Review
Carly Halse – Female Arts Magazine
TRAILER/trash by Mike Elliston has been through a few incarnations, the first quite dramatically, destroyed by a fire at its first Off West End venue. Since then, it’s become clear this play is a phoenix, and its latest outing to show off its plumage is brought to us by the brilliant The Play’s The Thing and Rosemary Hill, as part of the ever growing Milton Keynes Fringe Festival.
Although the Milton Keynes Gallery Events Space is a tricky beast to tame into a theatre (too much outside light, awkward eye lines, no real backstage area etc) there has been a solid effort here. (Please, someone just create a proper fringe space in Milton Keynes!) The set by Kevin Jenkins is, as usual, utterly gorgeous and fills in the world perfectly. Just the right side of trashy, the torn canopy and warm fairy lights evoke a faded magic in this ‘safe space’, and the corrugated trailer walls perfectly frame the piece. There are even lights hung over the audience, and clever rustic nods to the Deep South setting. Jenkins has that remarkable ability to create design that looks deceivingly simple, but is actually incredibly detailed. The clever addition of two old car seats as the primary sitting space adds the intelligent idea of a road-trip to nowhere.
And indeed, that’s ultimately what we have here. Two misfit characters, thrown together by chance, on a journey to try and make themselves whole. And through that journey, they of course find what really makes them whole – each other. This is a Thelma and Louise for our times, and there is something delightfully filmic about the setting, the characters and their respective journeys. Frankie is a homeless trans man desperate to start testosterone injections and his transition, whilst Shyanne is a middle-aged African-American stripper desperate to escape her run-down male-dominated world and be bigger, brighter and bolder.
We watch as they try to navigate their world, dealing with all the predictable and ugly misogyny and prejudice they face daily. Indeed, the vividly written characters of the horrific men that surround their lives are so grotesque, it’s almost a shame we can’t see these characters on the stage. Instead we hear recorded voices, or we see interactions where we quickly ‘fill-in-the-blanks.’ One scene in particular where Shyanne is talking to a ‘hands-y’ strip joint customer on one side of the stage, whilst Frankie takes a complicated order from a judgemental ‘religious’ man visiting the diner on the other, works particularly well and is cleverly written with a dark humour.
With call backs to Thelma and Louise throughout, there is heartbreakingly truthful relationship between the two characters, who are played with an engaging authenticity by Elinor Coleman and Karlina Grace-Paseda. There is the delicate hand of Rosemary Hill’s directing here, and I’m certain she is responsible for allowing these actors to really find the truth of their characters and their relationship together. One scene in particular where Frankie comforts a beat up Shyanne whilst she rests her head on Frankie’s lap is tragically beautiful. Frankie dreams of the life that could be, laments the life he left behind, and pours over his internal struggles. Coleman’s delivery here is superb, and it almost feels like the performance could comfortably end here, leaving us wondering what might happen to these two outcasts stranded together in their safe space…
Whilst Elliston has created two very intriguing and layered characters, I wonder if there is a slightly more rounded story to tell here. Shyanne’s revelation of her dark deed (no spoilers) comes fairly unexpectedly, with little build-up. Perhaps because we have lived in a world with just these two characters, we find ourselves struggling to care very much at some ‘outside’ tragedy? Like Shyanne and Frankie, we feel safe here, so the impending tragedy feels a little like some dark dream or fairy tale.
There are also some points where the filmic aspects and the theatrical don’t quite marry – background music punctuates some scenes, but seems to slightly mar the end moments of the play, as I struggled to hear the dialogue. As with any two-hander, there are some tricky issues with transitions as the actors have to change and perhaps the music might best be served in these moments? The moments where the actors change on stage, as when Shyanne sobbingly pulls off her glitzy dress, and her glitzy persona with it, totally work. Indeed, the concept of clothing seems remarkably important here. Both characters explore gender roles through their sartorial choices and this is an interesting concept that could be explored further.
Likewise, at the opening of the play we hear Frankie’s tortured inner monologue at his first meeting with Shyanne – to be the old female-born Francis, or the real macho Frankie? But there were times later when I wished to go back to Frankie’s inner thoughts, for example when his boss at the local diner forces him to wear a dress and a wig for work. This is an utterly harrowing scene, which I really wanted to see ‘play out’ whether in monologue or ‘with’ the diner boss Alvin.
For many people in Milton Keynes, I’m sure this play will be their first experience or understanding of transgender issues, and for that we must applaud director Rosemary Hill and writer Mike Elliston. The Play’s The Thing are bravely embracing new writing, and that is exactly what the Milton Keynes theatre scene needs to do in order to stay fresh and relevant. It is evident there has been much research, and I’m sure there are a million other scenes for these two bubbling in Elliston’s brilliant brain. I am certain there is more to come from Frankie and Shyanne and their road-trip without a car. Like Thelma and Louise they will ‘keep going’ for a long time. Definitely one to catch tonight, whilst you can!
Verdict - ★★★★
TRAILER/trash - Review
Matthew Taylor – Monkey Kettle
You always know you’re going to get a show when you attend a performance by The Play’s The Thing Theatre Company, and TRAILER/trash was no exception. Set on the back porch of a typical American trailerpark trailer, it features just the two characters – waning stripper Shyanne and confused transgender kid Frankie.
The writer – Mike Elliston – has an incredibly experienced CV as a playwright, and his know-how showed throughout. It was actually billed as both drama and comedy and although there were some genuinely funny exchanges, it was a lot more nuanced than that. As the stories of his two characters emerged, intertwined and developed, I began to hope they would achieve the happy ending of which they increasingly dreamed – although of course life very rarely ends up like that! I look forward to seeing his next collaboration with the company: “Austerity - The Musical”, due this Autumn!
With just two actors on stage throughout, it can sometimes be the case that they are forced to carry a lot of work between them. However, they were more than up to the task. Karlina Grace’s Shyanne was a convincing juxtaposition of brittleness and world-weary warmth, while Ellie Coleman played Frankie with naïve optimism undercut with a sharp edge. These unlikely bedfellows – and I enjoyed the fact that this was never declared to be the literal case – find something in each other’s friendship that makes them feel differently about themselves. Better about themselves. The references to Thelma & Louise were a clever echo of a film to which TRAILER/trash owed a debt thematically but was simultaneously subverting with the more realistic (and less mainstream) characters of Shyanne and Frankie.
I got a real feeling from the production that it had been painstakingly directed by Rosemary Hill – one positive aspect of having a two-person cast is that really detailed work can be done to fine-tune the performances and the staging. Frankie and Shyanne both convinced, and the story bounced along at a pleasing pace.
The MK Gallery Event Space is a venue I have never seen used for theatre before, but it was made to work very well. The staging and set (by Kevin Jenkins) was vividly constructed, the trailer exterior and verandah space seemed at once both natural and filmic. The soundscape which accompanied the play – like the stage equivalent of a movie soundtrack – was atmospheric without being intrusive. Even the noise of the skateboarders outside in Margaret Powell Square somehow added to the down-home ambience, though I’m sure that was a happy accident! James Tearle’s lighting design also formed an integral part to the play – almost a third character at times with its strikingly visual evocation of the sun setting and rising across the trailer park.
All in all, very impressive. A refreshingly ambitious production by a refreshingly ambitious company. and a worthy star of this year’s MK Fringe Festival.