It’s odd how certain little patterns keep emerging when carrying out this online reviewing, e.g. a couple of weeks ago I seemed to be working through a whole raft of musicals. A couple of days ago I watched No Milk For The Foxes in which two young men examine their lives and find them wanting. Yesterday it was on to the women in a play called Sunnymead Court which is being presented by Defibrilator in the Tristan Bates Theatre at the Actors Centre.
The play is by the talented Gemma Lawrence who takes a situation recognisable to many over the last few months and spins a short but telling tale about communication (and miscommunication) in these lockdown times. The title conjures up an evocation of rural bucolic England, brightly lit, with freedom to roam and enjoy the bounties of nature. Irony alert – the central characters in this play are learning to exist in their own rather more prosaic environments in cramped adjacent tower blocks overlooking each other in the middle of a pandemic lockdown. Marie is shy, retiring, endlessly unsure of herself and a little bit geeky, spending a great deal of time on the internet and having an absolutely regular, almost regimented, routine even down to playing the same piece of music at 11 o’clock every morning. Stella has a rather freer flowing attitude towards life, getting up when she pleases, acting spontaneously and apparently paying no heed to what others may think. However, the care she displays for her bed ridden mother and her geraniums hint that her attitude is not totally laissez faire. Spending time locked in and locked down they are searching for some meaning to their new way of living; they inevitably begin to notice each other, and a distanced relationship begins to form. From there it is a case of opposites attract leading to a predictable but delightfully handled direct meeting.
If there’s nothing particularly radical in the plotline it’s because this is largely a character based piece and the interest lies in the way the performers bring the duo to life and in the way the play is staged. Lawrence herself plays Marie as a mass of uncertainties which she reigns in through the deployment of an almost clockwork routine which contains hints of OCD. It is she who first feels an attraction and in a touching gesture she buys some geraniums to signal her affinity to her neighbour; that she then overwaters and kills them is a beautifully played metaphor for how her life must often turn out. Stella is played by Remmie Milner as more overtly confident and outward looking though her troubled relationship with her mother hints at a certain degree of insecurity. This is a delightfully bold characterisation which contrasts very well with Lawrence’s and helps to develop the odd couple structuring of the piece. The final by chance meeting when there is a brief moment of physical connection is electric – all the more so in the light of current circumstances. My initial thought was that I could have done with ten minutes more to show “what happens next” but on reflection I think it probably does end at the right moment; the coming together of the two young women is what is important and to have added anymore would have risked it tipping into soap opera territory.
Apparently the show was rehearsed in little more than a week and a half and so director James Hillier has sensibly opted to keep everything simple with two rostra representing the pair of flats and just a minimum of furniture – chairs are not only chairs they are beds, tables and even, at one stage, a bath. The whole is contained within a simple black box and there is judicious use made of a mirror as Marie literally reflects upon her life. Max Pappaneheim’s soundscape inventively fleshes out the scenario of a pair of flats way above ground level receiving distant noises from the streets below. In an ingenious exercise in limiting the number of people required to run the show, the two performers operate their own sound, lighting and effects cues from a simple box at the back of the stage – unusual but in this context it works.
I also think it is worth recording the innovative way this show has been presented, for taking it online is the last variation of a three part process. The play first ran as a live event in late September in the Tristan Bates Theatre (Actors Centre) with two performances each night and three on Saturdays. Observing social distancing regulations, there were 24 seats available for each performance and these, it’s good to know, sold-out. The production was also live-streamed on various occasions (some captioned) throughout the run. Now the show is available for streaming on demand for the next few days. If nothing else there has been clear thought given as to how to maximise audience numbers while not neglecting those who are unwilling or unable to travel to the live venue. Bravo!
Production photos by Lidia Crisafulli
Sunnymead Court can be accessed via The Actors Centre website. Click here
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