Brighton festival – review

Directed by Michael Rosen, this year's Brighton festival captures the spirit of the city, from militant circus to missing relatives

This is the year the Brighton festival took off. The shows are staged so close together that you can be blown in seconds from one to another on a sea breeze. Under the guest direction of Michael Rosen they are not shackled to a theme yet together capture the city's particular atmosphere. They are sometimes haunted, sometimes hurdy-gurdy.

The most searing show comes from Sydney. In The Disappearances Project a man and woman deliver statements by the relatives of people who have inexplicably vanished, and who are left in grief-stricken bewilderment. They talk of the strange brutalities that people offer as comfort. Perhaps, one friend suggests, to the relative of a missing man, he was not murdered. After all, he may just have gone off into the desert and died of thirst. They talk as much of what they have done to look for the missing – scanning every face as they drive, waiting blankly at the airport, being rebuffed by officials bound by privacy laws – as they do of their own feelings. Yet they also supply moments of terribly tender language. We are, says someone whose relative vanished three years ago, "only toddlers" in this realm.

The Disappearances Project begins and ends with two empty chairs in front of a blank screen. As the actors take up their places, a desolating video begins to play. The suburbs of an Australian city unscroll seamlessly. There are large white houses with verandas, wide parks with spreading conifers and long, empty streets that are brutally lit. Every now and then through a restaurant window you may catch the blurred outline of a human being but you never see a recognisable human face. This is the horrible emptiness of a landscape from which individuals have been extracted.

The Contents of a House is another attempt to recover people who have vanished. Peter Reder, who has specialised in spinning stories in neglected spaces, escorts an audience around Preston Manor, an 18th-century country house on the outskirts of Brighton. The glamour is Edwardian; the owners are Brighton & Hove city council; the display is down to the curators.

At first sight this looks like the most dreadful missed opportunity. The more earnest Reder's voice, the more feeble the information. Just when you want a fact he gives you – in 21st-century fashion – a video. In oak-panelled rooms hung with unexplained pictures and chilly servant spaces, you get to hear Fenella Fielding mouthing a commentary with breathy excitement and a woman in a bad mob cap limply pretending to be a housekeeper. There is a pointless digression about the Kama Sutra and a strange speculation about a meeting that can never have taken place. As Reder hints of a quarrel that led to disinheritance and to the absences that happen after wars, he points to the careful display of historical data. A starched white nightgown is too spruce to have been used. The bed on which it is laid is not original. The hip bath is, well, a bath but not necessarily the real thing.

Gradually the quizzical scepticism of the enterprise becomes apparent. This is a one-man version of Alan Bennett's People, a slant-eyed look at heritage. This is a country house that has been made up, and is being remade up now. Pausing portentously in a featureless passageway, Reder points out a thickly painted, undistinguished arch. That, he explains, is the oldest part of the house. Well, perhaps not the arch itself. Perhaps the space beneath it. We are looking at ancient air.

No show called Table Manners is going to be well-behaved. So it proves in this provoking, uncomfortable and very well-acted trio of shows. Jenny Hunt and Holly Darton do deadpan drollery (in cutlery-patterned shirts) at the expense of Dairylea and Babycham and some members of their audience (that man "is focusing really hard on our faces because he doesn't want to look at our breasts"). A brilliantly naturalistic dinner party sequence has a predictable curve (it does not go up), but each breath and explosion of the actors is surprising. It's hard luck on the adroit performers in the final part that their task is so dreary: eating nasty things (grass and scourers), repeating the same lines over and over again. Their delivery is delicious; the effect repugnant.

Nothing is repeated in Cirkopolis, an antic protest against industrialisation. A woman is thrown up high, twisting and seeming to float: she might be a scarf snatched away on a gust of wind. Another, spread-eagled inside a giant hoop, propels herself across the stage as if her arms and legs were the spokes of a wheel. A gang of jugglers toss a few skittles through the air so easily that you might think they were shoving them on to an invisible conveyor belt. Set against a grey video of magnified cogs and wheels, the team of acrobats move together as smoothly as a machine. Yet they constantly show with a flourish and a smile that they are the opposite of mechanical.

There are hardly any words in Cirkopolis. There are no sights at all in Earfilms' To Sleep, to Dream, where the audience listen, blindfolded, to an apocalyptic tale set after the giant floods of 2040. In a totalitarian regime, dreaming has been declared a subversive activity. Which means that even here, where the images are often predictable, every description has a supernatural glow.

Picablo is an amiable, twee take on Picasso. What are they doing with this painter who is less friendly than disturbing? Grey cubism is the backdrop, while in front and in colour are computer-generated images of harlequins and dove-cuddling children. A man and woman caper in and out of these pictures, niftily but without much point. They come on all French with tilted hats and – oh dear – balloons.


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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