Theatre Royal York’s intimate studio space throbs with RJ McConnell’sabstract soundscape and the scattered sand of Gem Greaves’ set (around which we carefully tiptoe to our seats) instantly locating us on a windswept beach. Among scattered stones, driftwood and rocks, Megan (McAusland) lies prone. We don’t know if she’s alive or dead – and neither do Joe (Idris) and Keira (Atim) as the play begins.
Joe is deeply troubled. He feels responsible for Megan’s state, and as the dialogue develops we’re increasingly convinced he is indeed to blame: she’s bleeding ‘like the bus stop girl’ from an incident he clearly wants to forget where there was broken glass and blood on his phone and from which he ran. His mantra ‘be sure now’ is anything but reassuring, and as Keira helps him clean his hands and hide Megan’s bag, she too becomes complicit in his guilt. However, Idris’ Joe is so vulnerable and engaging, and his physical expressiveness and evident mental agonies persuade us to hope that he can put things right, and it’s all a misunderstanding.
Which is what it seems when Megan is finally roused and recognises Joe. They know each other. He’s not a random psychopath. She talks about his parents. Her statements are as clear and transparent as Joe’s are opaque. Her shock at Joe’s behaviour and particularly his way of life (eating raw fish with eyes!) remind us we are in a place without the normal parameters of life: family, shops, ovens, and houses. Joe’s terrible thoughts, guilt and desperation have driven him to the edge of civilisation and of sanity. However, when they revisit their summer friendship, we learn that Megan too has been pushed towards an edge – shouting ‘screw you!’ from the top of a cliff – through anger and grief at losing her mother. Two young people facing extremity together. This play is testament to the possibility of finding a way back.
Time frames are beautifully switched with physical markers. A tentative lift of Megan’s broken body transforms into a flashback rough and tumble when the two friends were younger and freer of care. Posner’s direction focuses on the physicality of young lives exposed in a remote place and their relationship moves from confident friendship through to terror at a cliff’s edge. As the truth of this triangular relationship is gradually revealed, the physical movement of each character’s interaction echoes the constant waves on this symbolic beach.
From her first appearance, Atim’s presence is compelling but complex. Her luminous eyes and extraordinary limbs command the stage and dominate Joe, although she seems to take follow his lead even as she chastises him. Is Keira Joe’s lover, or does she own him? Is she helping him or steering him towards evil? Gradually we understand that Keira is not human. This interesting role seasons and challenges our reading of Joe and Megan’s relationship and could have been pushed further, for me. It felt like further facets of Keira’s influence could have been explored – her maternal, comforting rituals trap Joe into his current paranoia, and as his relationship with Megan resurrects it felt odd that these rituals vanished without a fight.
As a play for young people, Fisher has kept the running time short – probably rightly – to keep focus and the impact of the main themes. She conjures a powerful moment and a fascinating relationship between a character and his mind. As all good drama should – but particularly drama for the younger audience – Ghost Town leaves strands wide open for further exploration and development.