Tribes & Tribulations

John Serpico, The Art of Exmouth


Substance And Shadow Theatre are testament to what can be achieved if you have the will. Based in Exeter, they’re a non-profit making minimalist theatre group and their latest production, Tribes And Tribulations was recently staged for two nights at the world famous Blackmore Theatre in Exmouth, as part of the Exmouth Festival.

Featuring just four players; with the help of light, sound and a change of hats they manage to successfully recreate on a small, bare stage a free festival of 4,000 people. Which is no mean feat. Just try it yourself and see how you get on. The four main characters each have a separate tale to tell and against the background chaos of the festival they unfold.
There’s Sammy and his younger sister Georgie who having been deserted by their parents are facing eviction from their home due to unpaid rent. According to Georgie, Sammy is a prick who idolises Bruce Lee and spends all his time dreaming and smoking spliffs in the woods. Georgie is basically a teenage upstart but at the same time an innocent abroad who needs protecting though her elder brother is failing in this. Then there’s Crumb, an unemployed, Scottish docker who having seen his community smashed by Thatcherism has taken to the road as a traveller where he is now a member of the Peace Convoy, travelling from festival to festival. And finally there’s Cara, girlfriend of the leader of a chapter of Hell’s Angels whose faith in Mary, mother of Jesus has been shattered following the disappearance of her younger sister years before, leaving Cara adrift in what she perceives to be a cruel world, not knowing whether her sister is still alive somewhere or dead. Cara, it also turns out, is pregnant.

Having stolen a stash of LSD that’s been buried by the Hell’s Angels in the woods he hangs out in, Sammy sees it as the answer to his and Georgie’s money problems so heads off to a free festival to do some selling. Unbeknownst to him, however, he’s being trailed by Georgie and when he’s offered a lift by Crumb in his converted ambulance she jumps in also and for her it’s the start of a very strange trip indeed. Particularly after innocently taking some of Sammy’s new found LSD.

Tribes And Tribulations doesn’t centre around any one theme at all but instead weaves the stories (both inner and outer) of the main characters into one tapestry. In fact if anything, the dominating theme of the play is the festival itself and the culture of free festival life. It should be pointed out that the play is set in 1984, a time when festivals were nothing like the corporate affairs that they are these days. This also means that it’s set just a year before the demonisation of the Peace Convoy, the Battle of the Beanfield, and the smashing of the Stonehenge free festival in some of the most sickening scenes of police hate and violence I’ve ever witnessed – and after all these years something I’d still like to see avenged.

Being such a cultured and intelligent theatre-goer I was fully au fait with all the references within the play such as when Crumb refers to Culture Shock a few times as opposed to culture shock. Overly so sometimes however, because as an example I happen to know Culture Shock weren’t actually around in 1984. Also, the (fictional) name given to the festival they all gather at is Golden Dawn which is fine except that I and my fellow cultured and intelligent theatre-going audience members immediately associate Golden Dawn with the Far Right political Party of Greece. So the name has (unintentional) connotations.
Not that any of these things matter as they do nothing to take away any enjoyment of the play but as a cultured and intelligent theatre critic I’m just doing my job in pointing them out, m’am…
And tieing in with things not mattering, the best part of the play for me was when the sun comes up (the golden dawn) and Crumb ruminates over the meaning of it all. There’s the sun blazing away in all it’s glory and here we all are underneath it, running around worrying about our mortgages and what our neighbours are thinking and so on. Deadpan and straight to the audience, Crumb accentuates the fact that these things don’t actually matter. None of it matters.

I understand Substance And Shadow Theatre are touring Tribes And Tribulations around the country over the coming months, playing at various theatres. Go and see them, I would say. They’re great, basically, and destined for greater things. Their next production, in fact, to be debuted in the autumn is going to be called Skin Deep and will centre upon skinheads in the early 1980s, the Ska/Two-Tone music of that period, and working class ethics. I’ll see you all there down at the Blackmore again, hopefully. Dressed appropriately.

Original article: