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Marine Parade, The Old Market, Upper Market Street, Hove, May 18-23
"This is the most overtly romantic piece I’ve ever written,” Simon Stephens proclaims of his Brighton Festival world premiere Marine Parade.
From a playwright who has made his name with sardonic, angry works concerned with middle-class school shootings, Islamic extremism and the fall-out of war, this is noteworthy.
Not only “an unapologetic love story”, it’s also a musical, written in collaboration with Mark Eitzel of San Francisco’s American Music Club. A friendship blossomed between the two men after Stephens sent a shy “fan letter” to Eitzel explaining how he’d inspired him to write.
“I never wanted to be a playwright,”
he says. “I always wanted to be a singer-songwriter. People like Mark and a handful of others – Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Shane McGowan – were heroes to me as a teenager because of the way they could use language without being pretentious... but in a way that was direct and truthful and precise. Mark’s songs made sense of a lot of things to me.”
As it turned out, Eitzel had always aspired to be a playwright – Stephens remains slightly unconvinced by this fortuitous coincidence – and after years of transatlantic meet-ups, the pair decided to write a musical together.
Set in a Brighton B&B at the turn of the millennium, Marine Parade is “a whole series of love stories that interweave over the course of 24 hours”, produced by innovative Brighton-based company Animalink. Touching on distinctly non-fluffy themes of addiction, sex, betrayal and hope, it’s unlikely to give Andrew Lloyd-Webber any sleepless nights.
Stephens admits they entered into it “a little suspicious” of musical theatre. “We always felt there was a compromise there – the songs were never as good as they could be and the plays were never as good as straight drama.” He doesn’t describe Marine Parade as a traditional musical, however, rather as “a play with songs by Mark Eitzel”. He adds: “The music is used to release parts of the personalities of the characters that they couldn’t articulate in any other way, to say things in privacy to each other. It’s not saccharine or sentimental. I think – hope – it has an honesty people will relate to.”
As with previous works from the Olivier Award-winning 38-year-old, there’s a cinematic inspiration at its heart.
“We liked the idea presented in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, where strangers are brought together in a communal place and their energy reflects through and against one another. We were instinctively drawn towards setting it in Brighton because it’s a city of escape for a lot of people. It’s a city on the edge of England where the horizon is always present. We wanted to write a love story based on that idea of escape.”
While Stephens agrees Marine Parade is something of a departure for him as a playwright, he thinks all his plays – however “violent and abrasive” they may appear – share a sense of hopefulness.
“I think as a writer I’ve always been drawn to the possibility and potential of humanity and I think there’s redemption in even the darkest of my plays.
“Maybe here it’s more fearless.”
* Times vary, tickets cost £12.50