It is a bleak, stormy, biting cold Monday morning. Not the weather for a walk on Beachy Head, far less for sampling an ice-cream while you gaze out on the Channel.
Fortunately, I have sought shelter from the storm, and I’ve slipped into the back of a rehearsal room at Devonshire Park, where the director and cast are working intently on a production, which takes the stage on Monday (March 2). Beacons is a play for this town to take to its heart.
Set atop Beachy Head, where ice-cream seller Julie (Moira Brooker) sells her wares and gives counsel and comfort to all, the play is inlaid with motifs and issues which surely will resonate with Eastbourne folk. Beachy Head is a part of us, almost a part of our psyche. You cannot live in this town for more than a few years without having known, or known of, somebody involved in tragedy.
Julie’s touching and involving friendship with regular visitor Bernard (Steven Pinder) is at the centre of the dialogue and the action. The story has warmth, humour, humanity – it is far from negative. But it also embraces the contradiction which we Eastbournians live with, and cannot escape from: Beachy Head is a place of breathtaking beauty, exhilarating vistas, escapism and freedom. It is also, sometimes, a place of loneliness and desperation.
Beacons – a first play by young playwright Tabitha Mortiboy – was first staged some three years ago at the Park Theatre in Finchley, and remarkably strongly received – four stars from The Times and from the usually frugal The Stage, five stars from the determinedly less mainstream West End Wilma. “Infused with a gently persuasive tenderness” remarked The Stage, “which could melt a hard heart like an ice-cream in the rain.”
I slip quietly into a privileged seat alongside director Sam Clemens as Steven and Moira explore their characters’ friendship, teasing out those characters from the dialogue and finding half a dozen different ways to deliver a single line. Sometimes, rehearsals can be all about blocking, about mechanics and who enters through which door. But here, rehearsing is a process, a journey, and a reminder that acting comes not from the page but from inside the actor.
It could almost have been a two-hander, but the third character adds a whole different dimension. Locally-based actress Polly Jordan plays Skye, a 16-year-old who should be utterly free of cares but has seen a lot of life. And as the story unfolds, their three lives are woven together.
I cannot possibly reveal all: you must come to the Devonshire Park next week and see for yourselves. But, says Moira Brooker when we break for a cup of tea, “the story is more about hope than about despair. It is coming from a compassionate place, as the Samaritans tell us.” Steven Pinder takes up the theme: “We spent a couple of hours talking with the Beachy Head Chaplaincy team – and incidentally, we shall take voluntary collections at each performance next week, to support their outstanding work. We know there are tragedies, but we also learned how many, many people they are able to help. Their work is inspiring, and Beacons is all about those beacons of light which can shine even in someone’s dark moments.”
Polly, of a younger generation, was herself born, brought up, educated under Beachy Head. “We spend the play finding out how the three characters are interwoven, even though they each come from a different place. And the theme of isolation is so relevant to my contemporaries – we are supposed to be the connected generation and yet we are often disconnected. My age-group lives constantly with FOMO (fear of missing out) and posting endless highlight reels. Skye is a joy, and she brings joy.”
That resonates with Moira, too. “We three in the play find human connection. We can save each other from the wasteland of our own fear and phobias. It’s a function of theatre, too, but as we learned it is a real achievement of the Beachy Head team – talking down, as they call it, hundreds of people – not statistics but real people.”
If this all sounds heavy, believe me that it’s anything but. The script is often funny, often light-hearted, just engagingly human. We cannot escape Beachy Head, in this town, for we live week by week in its lee. The most stunningly scenic of places, and occasionally the saddest. Beacons is a unique piece of theatre, and Eastbourne is its spiritual home. It plays the Devonshire Park from Monday to Wednesday at 7.45, with a matinee on Wednesday. Breathe it in…
Tickets cost £19.50. Concessions and group discounts available. Call 01323 412 000 or visit www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk.