Note: This review is from the 2018 Fringe

There’s something immediately arresting about Stella, written and directed by David Tuffnell, and brought here by Teeside’s Less Is More Productions. Soporific sea sounds set the tone and three 1960s factory girls (two young women and an old ‘un) disembark a charabanc at Giant’s Causeway¬†on a work trip away. It’s a time-and-space specific, but non-obvious set up that grabs the interest, further heightened when we’re able to immediately detect a certain atmosphere between them.

Stella (Laura Lonsdale) secretes a letter in her handbag as the others join her at the water’s edge. Doreen (Victoria Holtom) is irritable and irked at something. The older woman, Jean (Doreen Frankland), is distant and mono-syllabic in a way that suggests at least mental distress, perhaps even dementia; it’s never quite clear. Both younger women seem protective of the older lady, Doreen with a lot less patience and a degree of patronising.

And those dynamics hold as we learn some of their back story. It would spoil the gradual unravelling to reveal too much of this, but suffice to say the play touches on grief, romance, and the 60s’ changing attitudes to sex. The two younger women are nicely positioned as friends whose attitudes differ even as their predicaments intersect to some extent.

Holtom is particularly impressive, channelling the raw spirit and attitude of the kitchen-sink era, with none of the chintzy nostalgia that these kind of roles have often been imbued with since. Lonsdale’s a nice contrast in the title role, but has been given some whimsical lines which lend themselves to staginess and fit oddly in the context of the piece. Frankland’s mono-syllabism is harder to get a hold on, though there’s a tragedy to her which is very effective, particularly when the other two fuss over her. She gets a genuinely eye-dampening moment, and you fear/hope that the story may end up dumping you off an emotional cliff into a sea of blubbering. That doesn’t quite happen, with an ending that, while satisfying, has scope for a second act or sequel.
Perhaps Less Is More is a statement of intent as well as the company name. There’s some well-crafted dynamics at play with these characters that tantalise rather than fully resolve. Within the confines of this hour, Stella’s flights of fancy distract and Jean’s inaccessible distance poses questions. It’s a beautifully atmospheric piece that somehow still keeps you at arm’s length.