Review: Clean, by Sam Chittenden

Posted On 04 Jun 2019 at 2:08 pm

Clean  Written by Sam Chittenden   Performed by Different Theatre. WINNER, BEST NEW PLAY, BRIGHTON FRINGE AWARDS 2019

Staged in the historic Mayo drying fields between the houses of Richmond Road and Roundhill Terrace in Brighton and now an award winning wildlife garden, ‘Clean’ begins its tale with the all-female cast singing a gently powerful and rousing song about sistership and standing strong together through adversity.  It sets the scene and the themes for the stories that are about to unfold.

We are introduced to the characters gradually, through the narrator of the story, a young women who has unwillingly returned to Brighton to pack up her deceased mother’s belongings. She is ambivalent and angry with life and her mother, and wants to get away from Brighton and her past as soon as she can. She is however drawn to some files that she comes across in her mother’s belongings, containing newspaper cuttings and photographs and soon finds that she is immersed in the stories that this collection tells, of the lives of 6 women in the Laundry Hill area and the times they lived in, spanning a century and a half from 1870 to the present.

As each woman’s tale unfolds at different spots around the garden, we are introduced to stories of social and physical deprivation, back breaking hard work, abuse, suffrage , mental illness and sexuality. These stories are set against a background of unyielding patriarchy, sometimes benign, but mostly not. The one thing that keeps them all, body and soul, together is the support and comradeship of the sisterhood

The garden is an especially effective and poignant stage given that two of the characters in the play are based on women that worked in the Mayo laundry on this site at different times in history. One in the late 19th century and another in the mid 1950’s.  It is not hard to imagine the women working here amongst the sheets hanging out to dry in the ever present wind, laughing and sharing their pains and woes. Both have tales to tell of backbreaking work and physical and social deprivation but not spiritual deprivation, the women giving each other all the spiritual sustenance that they needed under the temple of the billowing sheets.

The cast sing the song of sisterhood and hope at intervals throughout the play and as if on cue, whilst the cast sing of the women’s  laughter that was always on the breeze, a huge gust blows through the trees in the garden. This moment was not lost on the audience and many of us laughed into the wind as well. It was as if the ghosts of the women past had come to remind us that we are all held together along an infinite, invisible line of connection .

Each members of the cast gives a solid, believable and moving performance and each vignette is part of a well balanced piece making up the whole. The historic detail of the area is fascinating and the costumes are well chosen to define the eras of the times in which each story is set.

These are moving and harrowing, optimistic and life-affirming universal stories of women’s lives through the ages.  As a woman in the audience it was easy to feel a deep resonance with the message of sisterhood and to recognise many of the themes touched on, but wondered for the men in the audience how this message sat.

The men in this tale are lightly sketched and do not come off well, being drawn as, amongst other things, brutish, abusive, emotionally absent and benignly patronising. There were enough details however that spoke of depression and grief, of disempowerment and worthlessness, a tale of hidden mental health problems. Whilst the mainly negative depictions of the men in the play are there to illustrate a point and this story was not about them and Brotherhood, I was left wondering what their story was and how they would describe the universal story that they take with them down the ages?  I didn’t feel that it would be a story of as much solidarity, support and finding joy in companionship as in the women’s story and was left with a feeling of slight melancholy especially as the question this play begs is: what has changed and what remains the same?

Highly recommend *****

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