It is always intriguing when Buxton poet and playwright Anna Beecher brings new work to the town, most recently with the fascinating sound piece, Dog Rough. Skin of the Teeth is the first play since 2011 from Fat Content – the theatre company she founded with Rachel Lincoln and Daniel Holme – and all three are involved in this modern adaption of the Brothers Grimm fairytale, The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn to Shudder.
Nick is a young man who is unable to feel fear. He hangs out with friends telling ghost stories under the pier, seeking answers to his questions: What was the fright like? What are the creeps? He wants to learn to shudder more than anything. He tries to fake it, but is always a beat too late; it’s what makes him different, and he is desperate to fit in. When an attempt to teach him fear backfires badly, his father tells him to get out of town and never come back.
This opening section introduces us to Nick, played by Holme, who captures the innocence of a boy who can’t quite turn into a man; the kind of boy that’s described as having a lovely smile, with nice strong teeth. Nick notices teeth: stained teeth, teeth so thin they’re see-through. Soon, he starts to find and collect teeth. They are a recurring metaphor in the play, and, of course, teeth bite.
Nick’s innocence makes perfect sense, because the flip side of a lack of fear is trust. If you don’t fear that anyone may hurt you, then you have no reason to be wary of them. The otherwise excellent Holme could engage more with the audience to emphasize that trusting nature, especially as the action moves to the city.
Notwithstanding the lyricism and rhythm of the script, thus far the play has remained close to realism – establishing Nick as a believable character and drawing us into the story. But in the city, the fable comes to the fore. Ritual becomes key, motifs and ideas are repeated, and original elements of the Grimms’ fairytale are put to work. The people Nick falls in with are still intrigued by him, and just as interested in teaching him to shudder, but they are also manipulative and ready to use his lack of fear for their own ends. The tone darkens and becomes more threatening; cleverly, the level of fear in the audience is ratcheted up while Nick remains oblivious, doing what is asked of him as he’s constantly assured that these tasks will induce the emotion he is so desperate to feel.
There’s a warning here about the ease with which young men can be manipulated by those who promise to make their dreams come true, and how fearlessness and its real-world cousin, bravado, can lead a man into dark places. But the end of the play seems to lose clarity; the metaphors and strange imagery overpower the narrative. The mysterious conclusion risks inspiring over-thinking, and more than one departing audience member whispered plaintively to a friend, “what was that all about?”
But I like Skin of the Teeth, an intelligent and brave production that requires some unpicking and rumination. It is good to have Fat Content back in Buxton. Let’s just hope they don’t leave it so long next time.