FishHead visits Aberystwyth

Adam Somerset, Theatre in Wales

A touring show that comes to Aberystwyth with the support of Arts Council England is not uncommon. A production with assistance from Worcestershire’s County Council is less so. In fact “Fishhead” comespowerfully tinged with Wales. Director and writer Tiffany Hosking is now based in Great Malvern- thatjewel of Victorian architecture a skip away from the Powys’ border- but schooled in Tregaron and Aberystwyth, with onward study in Swansea. The writing has taken place in the shadow of Llandewi Brefi. “FishHead” has already been to venues from Liverpool to the Brighton Fringe. This last-but-oneperformance is something of a homecoming and it has the front-of-house staff scurrying to locate extra chairs for the late arrivals packing out Aber’s Studio space.

If FishHead were a book it would be an Alice Munro or William Trevor. As a writer Tiffany Hosking avoids all the characteristics that disfigure writing for performance. There is none of the wholesale spraying of f-words that lesser authors judge to be indicators of grit and authenticity. The characters do not come a-bursting with authorial opinions on items topical in the news. They are on stage with space between them, so that the actors have something real to do.

The story itself has a honed simplicity. But theatre is more, much more, than story. Its aesthetic ground is the making of pattern and pattern-within-pattern. “FishHead” comes with much artistry. The selkie of legend acts as a leitmotif. It moves to a closure that is a surprise. But it links wholly to what has gone before and has a haunting overtone of metaphor.

Structurally, the writing is framed by an offstage radio show- the host played Caitlin Morgan- that features eight pieces of music. The why and the when of this frame only reveals itself, with cleverness, as “FishHead” moves towards its end. The last image, as the lights go down, fuses action, character and a well-known piece of music with brilliance.

Theatre at its very least takes its audience into human worlds it has never known. “FishHead” is the first work where a lead character is an oyster-dredger. Trev Fleming’s Tom Kelly has left his native Ireland after disease has ravaged the family oyster beds. By route of a stint in a northern call centre this inveterate evader of obligations has come to coastal Landwich in a last attempt to make good his fishing

Michelle Pogmore, in a performance of great heart, is Lydia, come too to this coastal edge, her current aspiration to be a ventriloquist. Mop-headed, spindle-legged Jonty with his round blue button-eyes is the puppet she takes to a successful gig at Landwich’s local pub.

The cast is subtly rounded out by Sean Connell. Alex Radu, Claire Burton, Jade Cook and Anthony Lightfoot stand at each corner of the performance area. It appears that they are to be no more than grey-suited, distant-gazing sentinels. Then they suddenly but restrainedly perform as physical players for purposes on both land and sea. At one point they link with Michelle Pogmore, an action that elicits spontaneous applause.

The design is unique. A mobile of fifty blue-fin tuna is suspended over the three-part stage set- construction by Charles Mason. To reveal quite how the set is used to various purposes would be a spoiler for audiences at Taliesin or future venues. Other company credits go to Emily Nightingale as dramaturg, Karen Johns for puppet and graphic design, Pete Coxhead and Jonty Petfield for lighting design. Choreography is by Lizie Giraudeau.

Malvern has a place of distinction in theatre’s history. A plaque close to the Elgar Memorial marks its part in the centenary of Birmingham’s Rep. FishHead has been supported by the Sir Barry Jackson Trust, the Elmley Foundation also. There is a neat parallel that this summer Malvern has been host to Wales’ theatre at its peak. “FishHead”, touring west, has crossed paths with Terry Hands’ “Under Milk Wood”.

As the lights go up on “FishHead” an audience member a few seats distant is applying a tissue to eyes that have gone moist. To be cause for tears, there is no testament to theatre that comes higher.