Tribes & Tribulations

“Festival anarchy highs and lows” by Avril Silk, Remote Goat

TribesFor many of the appreciative audience at Exeter’s Cygnet Theatre, the latest play by Midge and Rosie Mullin was a trip, pun intended, down Memory Lane in the Magic Bus. ‘Tribes and Tribulations’ was a vivid, visceral reminder of the counter-culture to Thatcher’s brutal Britain; a free festival – the antidote to yuppies and rampant capitalism. A passionate integrity in the writing avoided stereotypes, offering instead characters completely recognisable to anyone who ever pulled on their wellies and wore a poncho (and liked Gong…) – or not, if you belonged to one of the other tribes.

The production brilliantly evoked the anarchic optimism of arriving in a convoy of battered buses to a wild place; a place where a diet of drugs and bean stew fuelled an army of Rainbow Warriors/Hell’s Angels/deep undercover drug squad officers and all as they briefly tried to transcend their daily lives. And we laughed at the lawlessness and the craziness even though we knew that the comedown would be hard and fast. A year later, at the notorious Battle of the Beanfield, 1300 police officers fought with approximately 600 Travellers and members of the Peace Convoy, prompting the largest mass arrest of civilians since World War Two, or possibly ever.

Midge Mullin’s Crumb, a complex, contradictory, fully rounded character, reminded us, if we needed reminding, of how Thatcher and her henchmen broke the unions and once-working communities were bludgeoned into unemployment and poverty. Inevitably the freedom of the travelling life attracted many seekers, rebels and lost souls. It is to Midge Mullin’s credit that he left us wondering whether he might throw in his lot with the Peace Convoy or return to the day job…

Mike Gilpin’s gormless, endearing Sammy, planned to deal his way out of debt, like his father before him. As I watched him stumbling around ineptly when overwhelmed by the magnitude of providing for his kid sister, Georgie (Becky Rich) or bouncing about happily, as the music and magic transported him, I felt the needle on my moral compass go haywire. Drugs – life-enhancing or deadly? Discuss. ‘Get a job,’ I found myself thinking. Then I remembered that Margaret Thatcher presided over a dramatic rise in youth unemployment and inequality, and I felt savage on behalf of a generation robbed of the opportunities my generation were blessed with. No wonder getting out of it was so compelling.

Similarly I wanted to tell Georgie to get back to school and realise her considerable potential… Becky Rich’s archetypal kid sister was tough, feisty, heartbreakingly vulnerable and resilient as only adolescents can be. Becky had some wonderful lines, and mostly her delivery was, like her character, pin-sharp, but during the mesmerising word game that distilled the essence of festival, she sometimes lost clarity. Her emotional eloquence however, was always present.

Biker girl (or Hell’s Angel ‘old lady’) Cara (Rachel Milne) was mesmerising. Described as an Amazonian Goddess, she seemed invincible, but Cara’s reality was far less enticing than that. Her reluctant, tough tenderness with Georgie was finely drawn especially as her future decisions and dilemmas loomed ever larger.

Excellent performances, then, a cracking sound track (although I did wish that the invisible dog and his sound effects were on the same side of the stage) and confident direction by Rosie Mullin and Ben Rodwell. My companion and I discussed the play (and our festival memories) all the way back to Somerset. I am indebted to her for an explanation of ‘hot knives’. The ending didn’t entirely satisfy either of us but it’s hard to imagine a better one.

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