AYT catches up with OutFox productions as it prepares for its new show…
OutFox Productions returns to The Jack Studio Theatre, Brockley for its fourth production, this time performing Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. As the cast gathered in the adjoining Brockley Jack pub, it was immediately clear that they have become a close bunch. With overrunning sentences, an abundance of laughs and an easy rapport, they chatted about family, dreams and the glimpses of hope within Paul Zindel’s play.
While the production may have created a cosy group, the play concerns relationships of a more destructive nature. Tilly Hunsdorfer lives with her abusive mother, Beatrice, and sister, Ruth, in a cramped house in the small town of Henrietta. Set in the early 1970s, the play sees Tilly strive to compete in the school science fair by monitoring mutations on marigolds that have been exposed to radiation. However, even as the prospect of scientific success looms, it is clear she will have to overcome the oppression of her volatile home environment.
“They live in this tiny house on top of each other, there’s a history of neglect and abuse and breakdowns and death and seizures,” Evelyn Campbell (Tilly) explains, setting the scene of the cluttered Hunsdorfer house (designed by Gina Rose Lee). “These really frightening things that pull them together – that’s what they’re clinging onto each other for.” It is Beatrice, the unhinged matriarch, who is the root of this trouble. “She just changes her mind – whatever suits her at the time,” says Sophie Doherty, who plays Beatrice, elaborating upon her instability. “It’s very volatile and scary to have a parent like that,” Katherine Rodden (Ruth) adds, before director Amy Gunn chipps in to agree: “If you’ve got no consistency, that’s so what you need – growing up, having a consistent environment. To have that shakiness just sets everything else [off].”
In spite of Beatrice’s unbalanced outlook, she dreams of opening a teashop and Doherty wonders at the audience’s hopes for the character: “It’s interesting to know whether they think she will open that teashop […] are they going to go ‘of course – never going to happen!’”. The hopeless yearning of many who encounter the play is in Rodden’s wistful reply: “You so want her to though, don’t you?”
Often denied a voice by Beatrice, it is in pre-recorded monologues that Tilly’s character breaks free, talking of her fascination with atoms. At school, she has a supporter in her teacher, Mr. Goodman, and applies herself to the project with a focus sorely lacking in Beatrice. However, Gunn points out that despite the play’s preoccupation with Tilly’s project, “it’s still about the family dynamics and how they react to [Tilly’s science project] – this is just one little chapter in their lives and yet it has created this whole huge reaction.”
While it is family that represses and limits the characters in the play, it is equally family that the characters are repeatedly drawn back to. As Tilly attempts to seek refuge in her science project, she is pulled between reaching for her dreams and the struggles of her life with Ruth and Beatrice. “It’s not that [the science fair] changes anything, that’s the sadness of it: it has no bearing on it.” Gunn sighs: “We maybe hope that Tilly will go off and do something marvellous and be a scientist and go to university but…” “…We just don’t know…” Campbell finishes. Doherty expresses a more optimistic view: “She’s going places, this girl. I want the audience to go ‘there is hope here’.”
“Exactly, because you go ‘there’s potential and it’s being squashed’ and that’s horrible to see, something beautiful is growing out of the mundane and the banal,” Gunn continues, receiving a chorus of “Like the marigolds!” in reply, the parallel quickly and cheerfully being drawn. The play has an all-female cast and interestingly, OutFox’s production continues this backstage with a mostly female crew. Though the cast agree that the play shouldn’t be defined by this fact, Doherty nevertheless expresses her enjoyment of the experience: “it has been an amazing thing in the rehearsal room over the last three weeks because we’ve all kind of really bonded, we’ve all become very close and we laugh a lot […] I think that has completely seeped into the performances and characters because we are so comfortable with each other that we can be braver than we would be if there were men around.”
Set in the early 70s, Campbell points out that the time period “…sets their limitations […] They are women limited by their times.” Clare Almond (Nanny) expands on this, explaining that, “although we had the start in the wider world of the feminist revolution [in the early 70s], it had not reached them in any sense at all. Either [Zindel] was looking forward to what might happen to women in the future or he was just quite simply, you know: ‘here’s a whole bunch of oddballs living out their lives in this tiny place where they probably don’t belong’ […] that geographical context and wider social context – the way things were starting to change – I think makes a great strength in the play.”
With Wedekind’s Spring Awakening as its well-reviewed debut production and an adaptation of Hitchcock’s Rope in its repertoire, OutFox has a reputation for facing challenging theatre head on. The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is no exception. Producer and OutFox co-founder, John Fricker, emphatically explains the link between the show choices: “We pick things that people can be passionate about and it’s the passion of everybody in the team – actors, backstage – that’s the reason that we do the work that we do: if people are not passionate about a project, then we don’t take it on.”
“Fringe theatre is something that happens a lot, but good fringe theatre is not something that happens a lot,” Grace Lyons Hudson (Janice) enthuses, drawing on Fricker’s explanation, “this has been an experience that has only made me realise that a passion for theatre, a passion for drama is so important and it can flourish and make you more confident and make something beautiful.”
Fricker concludes by picking up on a deeper significance in Lyons Hudson’s words: “I think the story parallels really nicely with that passion for theatre and passion for drama: it’s Tilly’s passion for science, it’s whatever your passion is, go for it!”