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“Even in the 1950s when they were real and regularly frequented, American diners were really a particularly powerful dream or illusion.
“There is a great affection for them, especially when you see them in movies. There is that preoccupation with polish and Hollywood style. It is a world that has disappeared, and certainly feels out of place in England.”
So says Tim Hoare, the director of award-winning playwright Penelope Skinner’s new play Fred’s Diner, which premieres at Chichester’s temporary space Theatre On The Fly this week.
The play is the last long-running production in the space, which opened in June with Dennis Potter’s classic tale of childhood played by adults, Blue Remembered Hills.
Playwright Skinner won the Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright last year with her play The Village Bike at London’s Royal Court Theatre.
Set in an American diner by a busy motorway, her latest work explores the lives of the staff and regulars with often surprising results.
“What’s behind the smells and neon and chrome is something else,” says Hoare. “It looks at what is beneath the surface, and how we acknowledge and ignore things. It’s about how human beings are able to make life livable by choosing not to see some of the darker truths.”
He admits some of the play’s themes will surprise audiences, as the play follows in the footsteps of some of Skinner’s other works, which The Guardian described as “offsetting awfulness with humour”.
“The trick of the play is that it creates a thriller out of the way we think, and it makes you aware of the way you are thinking as it reaches its climax,” says Hoare, who is keen not to ruin any of the surprises or twists and turns the plot takes.
“It has Penelope’s extraordinarily sharp wit and humour throughout. As a writer it is an important quality to have the ability to see the humour in life and entertain an audience but also deliver this passion and administer a bodyblow. It makes it a very exciting piece of theatre.”
Rehearsals are currently ongoing, with Skinner spending the first week and final week working with the director and the cast of six making final tweaks and polishes to the text.
“She loves to give actors a solid and finished text at the beginning of the process,” says Hoare. “It’s laudable as it allows the actors to make things concrete and stable rather than constantly re-writing down to the wire.”
The six-strong cast includes some experienced names, including Royal Court regular Paul Hickey as the titular Fred, and Ian Charleson Award-winner Cush Jumbo. Jumbo was presented with the classical theatre trophy for the under-30s – which has been previously won by Rory Kinnear, Rebecca Hall and Andrea Riseborough – for her role in As You Like It at the Manchester Exchange Theatre last year.
“They are a fantastic, experienced and talented company,” says Hoare. “Penelope has an extraordinary reputation as one of the most exciting playwrights emerging at the moment, and the play is a fascinating mix of ideas – it really speaks for itself in this wonderful, slightly artificial kitsch world.”
With its high wooden walls, exposed fly tower and giant doors opening up to the parkway beyond, the Theatre On The Fly is currently being changed around by designer Andrew D Edwards for this closing production.
“He has conceived this really innovative set which builds on the classic furnishings of a diner,” says Hoare. “He’s used the materials which built the theatre – he’s turned scaffolding poles into stools by furnishing them with a red vinyl top and painted the walls pink and white to give them a bit of polish.
“It’s amazing how much you can do with a little – it’s going to be quite an extraordinary transformation of the space.”
Hoare, who has been involved with the creation of the theatre from the start, is pleased with how the season has gone.
“The plays have been incredibly successful,” he says. “We had a four-star review from the Daily Telegraph for Blue Remembered Hills and five stars for Playhouse Creatures.
“We’ve attracted a really mixed audience, from the loyal Chichester Festival Theatre -goers to some newcomers who are curious about the space and want to see it before it goes.
“We have been championing the new – new creativity in Chichester with a new building and a new audience – and it’s great that this is the first and only new play in the space.”
- Fred's Diner is at Theatre On The Fly, Oaklands Park, Chichester, from Wednesday, August 15, to Sunday, September 2. Starts 8pm (not Sundays, except September 2), 3pm matinees on Saturdays, tickets £17/£10, day seats £8.50 available from 10am on the day. Call 01243 781312