Fringe Guru

By Stephen Walker

Six years ago, Jon Beere and four friends were convicted of a plot to smuggle drugs – using a fishing boat to collect bags chucked off a container ship in the middle of the English Channel. In the verbatim play Beerey, actor-playwright Lois Temel tells Beere's daughter Elle’s story, describing her life without her father alongside video clips about the campaign to prove the men's innocence.

Verbatim theatre poses its own difficulties. In theory your dialogue is written for you, but there is a lot of editing and creative work to be done. By definition, the dialogue will be realistic – but without poetic license and heightened language, the actor must really commit to the part. Thankfully Lois Temel does, and she's a very accomplished performer to boot.

Temel portrays Elle at various stages, from recalling the embarrassment of her father’s arrest in front of all her school-friends, through to the young mum unable to share pictures of her daughter with her grandad. Her performance alters subtly: the voice matures, the posture and dress changes. Temel conjures a strong sense of emotions being repressed, breaking the surface occasionally – yet there is a black humour in the face of adversity that intensifies the more emotional moments.

The direct address to the audience is very effective, and you sense that Elle is having a cathartic experience in getting her thoughts out. At times, Temel creates moments where there is a real lump in the throat or goosebumps. For those who've never experienced it, it's also a startling revelation of the indignities relatives suffer: how prison visitors as young as three are separated from their family and thoroughly searched, through their hair, in their mouths.

As a play, Beerey has a fine line to tread. The advance publicity clearly aligns it with the campaign to free the men; but an hour is not going to be long enough to convince us of their innocence, and Temel wisely concentrates on the human story of the loss of a father. The question then becomes not whether the men are innocent, but whether Elle’s belief in their innocence is justifiable. And there is enough in the extracts from a BBC documentary to fulfil that task.

However, there remains a disconcerting tension. The play rails with Elle against the injustice of it all, but a little voice in the back of my head – a voice that I can’t quite silence, because I can’t be as convinced as Elle – tells me that if they are guilty, then the responsibility for her unhappiness doesn’t lie with the authorities. By taking a clear position in support of the men, the script robs itself of a potentially more dramatic ambiguity.

In the end though, Beerey has to work as a play regardless of how you feel about the case – and work it does, thanks to Lois Temel’s extraordinary performance. It's a moving, and at times chilling, account of what it’s like to have someone taken away from you for reasons you find incomprehensible.

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