This remarkable play pulls no punches. Nor does it mind its language.
There are two couples, Alison and Ted and Clarissa and Simon. They are all connected but I won’t tell you how. Nor will I tell you why they all apparently dislike each other so much. To do so would be to subvert Alice Birch’s brilliant presentation of human tensions as, from our own experience, we know they do actually erupt.
For most of the first half of the play every utterance is laden with resentments arising from unidentified past happenings. Why unidentified? Because, thicko, they know exactly what they are angry about. They don’t need to tell each other what’s getting up their nostrils.
As a result, the experience of watching the play is as gruelling as acting it must be (although I didn’t notice any audience member having to walk barefooted across a floor covered in broken wine glasses). Just imagine that you are eavesdropping on people you don’t know who are permanently out of patience with each other.
To someone of my age, who has led a sheltered life, the three youngest of the protagonists are talking most of the time in an argot that, although it uses uses English words, might as well be in a foreign language. Time for another stroke of genius from Ms Birch. The last character to appear is from an older generation and is as bemused we are by the company in which he finds himself.
Since the play runs for 95 minutes without an interval, we have no chance to size it up until the playwright decides that it’s time for that to happen. At this point people break one by one from the shouting match––or, to put it another way, the shouting match becomes a cry for help from all sides.
Thus comes a brief coda-ish period when the relationships which have thus far been identifiable only as longstanding, turbulently eruptive sources of grief, anger and stuff being thrown about, become (for the time being only, one feels) identifiable in terms of of loving and dependence.
I wouldn’t, however, identify this as a turning point, quite. Rather than that, it suggests that people who have seemed incapable of seeing anything other than from their own wounded perspective are perhaps beginning to examine themselves as well as each other, in search of a way out of the melee in which they are apparently trapped.
David Mercatali’s direction is masterly. Pace in general and changes of pace in particular are calibrated so as to overlap between characters. One might risk being boring by describing the play as a study of group dynamics.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Lorna Brown, Paul Rattray, and Yolanda Kettle define the three relative youngsters with vim and precision, while Paul Hickey plays a slightly older man, less certain and therefore less angry than the others.
Talking of actors, this play contains what is I think the first instance I have seen of colour blind casting in a contemporary play. It produces some fascinating effects.
This is emphatically a play not to be missed, but be prepared to feel that you are being pummelled almost as much as the people you are watching.
Alice Birch has had plays done by the National Theatre, the RSC and the Royal Court. Little Light was her first full-length play and this is its world premiere.
- By Alice Birch
- Directed by David Mercatale
- Cast includes: Lorna Brown, Paul Rattray, Yolanda Kettle, Paul Hickey
- Orange Tree Theatre, London
- Until 7th March 2015
- Time: 19:30
- Review by Tom Aitken
- 09 February 2015