Halfway through “Vertigo,” Hitchcock pulled a surprise twist. He changed the nature of the movie’s suspense by giving the plot away and catapulting audiences into the fascinating position of knowing more than James Stewart’s leading character. Although Fiona Evans’ remarkable “Scarborough” is not a thriller, it offers a similarly thrilling, equally audacious midpoint switch. Following a beautifully observed first half about a doomed affair, Evans grabs her audience with an entirely new perspective on the sexual politics they have just seen … and are about to see again.
What better way for Lauren (Holly Atkins) to celebrate the birthday of her boyfriend Daz (Jack O’Connell) than by taking him away for a weekend, albeit in the unglamorous northern seaside town of Scarborough? Sex, however, is not the sole reason why Lauren spends the entire weekend in the hotel room. Gradually, it becomes clear the couple are from the same school. She is a 29-year-old teacher, and Daz is her pupil: He’s about to turn 16.
For starters, most plays dealing with underage sex focus on predatory males pressurizing girls. This scenario of older woman/younger man — or, rather, boy — is unusual. From the word go, however, Evans makes it abundantly and engrossingly clear that there’s more to this than a standard exploration of guilt and blame.
The weekend away is a turning point for both partners. Daz is excited at the prospect of being alone together for the first sustained period of time. But, unbeknownst to him, Lauren is facing facts and, ironically, has decided the day he becomes legal will be their last.
Across four scenes of subtext-filled dialogue, the couple ricochet between untrammeled happiness in each other’s company and initially unexpressed but ever-increasing tension through to resolution.
The play’s uniqueness, however, lies in the second half. This is a complete replay of the exact same script with one gigantic change: the replay has an older male teacher, Aiden (Daniel Mays), with his young female pupil, Beth (Rebecca Ryan).
As in Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” the audience is given a completely different, gripping perspective on the characters and action. The characters don’t know what’s coming, but we do. Not only does the pathos rocket, you can feel the audience’s concentration redouble as we watch differences in gender politics made superbly visible. Are the dice loaded when the older partner is a man? How different are young girls and young boys? The same script yields fascinatingly contrasting emotions.
In both couples, the script’s clear-eyed concentration on the minutiae of the unequal relationship is made manifest not just by director Deborah Bruce’s flawless cast but her startling transformation of the theater space.
Designer Jo Newberry leads auds through a corridor into the naturalistically realized, nondescript hotel room, complete with ceiling and no visible theater lighting or, indeed, seating. Audiences perch on a window ledge, on the shabby furniture lining the edges of the room and on the floor. Anywhere, in fact, other than the dressing table or on the large double bed that dominates the seedy room.
Being this close to the actors allows every tiny detail of their performances to register. When O’Connell — and, in the second act, Ryan — wakes in the middle of the night, he/she slips out of bed and crosses the room to gaze pensively out of the window, seemingly oblivious to audiences members seated right beside him/her. The feeling of being complicit, guilty witnesses to the liaison is almost overwhelming.
As the difficulties between the two of them surface, so does Evans’ superb use of laugh-aloud humor. Daz returns from a shopping expedition with the terrifying news that he’s run into the headmaster. Panic ensues, until he reveals he’s kidding. The preposterousness of the situation is lost on neither of its participants. And everything turns painful when Lauren/Aiden attempts to explain to an uncomprehending Daz/Beth that she/he has to end it.
Part of the strength of Evans’ writing lies in its breadth of compassion. The playwright refuses the easy option of blame, rendering the tenderness between both sets of actors astonishingly watchable. In the second half, Mays’ tear-stained distress at delivering the painful news to Ryan’s wise-before-her-time Beth is shockingly touching.
Similarly, when Atkins’ immensely evocative Lauren comes up with the feeble suggestion that young Daz wouldn’t understand her reasoning, his response — “I’m old enough to shag, but not old enough to understand” — is startling, pertinent and, in O’Connell’s hands, heartbreakingly poignant. His sincere grasp of Daz’s innocent tenderness is, paradoxically, a sign of the character’s — and the actor’s — unexpected maturity.
That captivating questions of responsibility, power and sexuality course so vividly through not just the first but the second half is a tribute both to Evans’ play and to Bruce’s immaculate production. This little miracle of balance deserves a serious future life.