Light Falls

Written by Simon Stephens

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Original music by Jarvis Cocker

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Light Falls marks the end of Sarah Frankcom’s tenure as Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange Theatre. It seems only fitting that she bows out with a play about loss and endings. In the same week as iconic Northern soap Coronation Street is opening up a frank conversation about death, grief and kindness comes this new play by Simon Stephens. He has written a delicate and beautiful play about death that is also a eulogy to kindness and a testament to fortitude.

Christine (a very moving and understated performance by Rebecca Manley) is nine months sober after a life of alcoholism when she walks into a Stockport supermarket. Married to Bernard and a mother to Jess, Steven and Ashe, and a grandmother to baby Layton, she hovers at the shelf of vodka before dying suddenly from a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage. It is 12 minutes to 5pm. It is a Monday in February 2017. What happens next moves from the mundane to the sublime as Christine hovers around her family watching the defining moments in their lives as they hear of her death. What this quiet play does so well is capture how time can suddenly stand still yet life moves on around us and so inevitably must we, even when our world has irrevocably changed.

The cast of ten explore the intertwined relationships of a family and those around them as Christine dies. There are standout performances from Lloyd Hutchinson and Carla Henry as Bernard and his mistress as they navigate through a fumbling attempt at a threesome in a Doncaster hotel. There is a terrible poignancy and dark humour to this blustering, overweight man striving for new experiences yet ultimately lusting more for a double cone icecream than two young women in his hotel four poster bed.

All three children are emotionally damaged by their upbringing with an alcoholic mother who took wine to McDonalds and was drunk in the school playground. Defensive and wary in their emotional relationships they struggle with attachments having known a parent who at times favoured vodka over them. The play touches on each of their partnerships and through interactions and fragments of dialogue gives a sense of ongoing internal struggles.

Katie West is simply wonderful as Ashe, a desperate, exhausted young mother who has attempted suicide only months before her mother’s death. She exudes vulnerability and raw emotion in all her scenes and it is her presence that lingers after leaving the theatre. This is a portrayal of grief, fortitude and love that makes this play soar.

The stark, bare elegance of the set by Naomi Dawson ensures this is always about the actors. The stairs and tiered steps open out the staging and also feel like a gentle hint of stairs to heaven and steps in the grieving process. The cascading downpour that drenches has the catharsis of an outpouring of grief and emotion. The much heralded music by Jarvis Cocker is also understated in a less is more way. A recurring melody and a single Hymn of the North feel like the familiar comfort of a lullaby.

This is a low key production that favours subtle touches, gritty humour and beautiful writing to colour and shade an ordinary family dealing with the stark pain of loss. I’ll be watching from the shoreline epitomizes what many of us hope for when we have to survive loss. We yearn for that sense of being watched over and still cared for, as Christine does with her children. Much has been made of Light Falls as a Northern play by a Northern writer with a hymn by a Northern songwriter. Personally I’m not sure it matters where they are from, North or South. We are shaped by our roots, our heritage and whether we embrace or reject that, or run from it or back to it, our shoreline is simply our core, our gut, our safe place. We all need a haven when our world is rocked by loss regardless of who we are or where we live.

Royal Exchange Theatre 24th October – 16th November 2019

Images by Manuel Harlan

Happy Days

ROYAL EXCHANGE

Written by Samuel Beckett

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

In the opening minutes of Happy Days there is a strangely surreal sense of reassuring normality as Winnie methodically cleans her teeth and applies her lipstick. Yet this women is inexplicably trapped from the waist down in a mound of barren earth like the Queen of a floating island which is brilliantly evoked by Designer Naomi Dawson. Director Sarah Frankcom and Associate Artist Maxine Peake have joined forces on Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. It is a stunningly evoked vision of some kind of absurdist prison or hellish afterlife or perhaps, simply an allegory of a marriage gone stale.

Maxine Peake draws on all her acting skills and delivers a Winnie who shimmers in the harsh sunlight and gleams as the light finally fades. She is girlish and gay or plaintive and rueful. There is quite simply nowhere to hide in this production, nor are there cues from other actors as Willie is always out of her sight even when he is near her. Peake is just sublime throughout, brittlely blithe and gay in Act 1 and pitifully sunken eyed and unkempt in Act 2. With a camera zoomed in on just her face and every tiny expression projected on monitors above her, she never wavers. Her Winnie is runny nosed with an aged voice, seemingly forgotten like an O.A.P in a sub-standard carehome.

She is the quintessential upper middle class British woman who was probably a pre-war d├ębutante brought up to be pretty, charming and cheerful but also brave and stoic in the face of adversity. She reminded me of the Stephanie Beacham’s Rose in Tenko years ago. A delicate beauty who could still ooze pure class and glamour in rags, and who had cut glass vowels and cheekbones with a backbone seemingly formed of pure steel. Certainly Winnie keeps returning to the past to speak in the old style or recall past moments when she was young, foolish, beautiful while holding unto the classics to not forget familiar anchors. She is terrified of losing those anchors to sanity yet can also blithely ask Willie What is that unforgettable line?

It is the vulnerability of the human condition that pains Winnie more than the actual paralysis. What is most important is to be heard as a way of validating sanity and existence. She prattles away to Willie pastiming through the horror of her predicament as a coping mechanism. The maintenance of small routines and the comfort of Willie and the bag are her anchors to ensure she holds unto sanity and to gravity. Even as a husk of her former self in the second act unable to utilise these comforts she wills herself to focus on them as tangible memories, seeing Willie again and singing her song from the now out of reach music box.

This play is a study in mindfulness reminding us all how to harness our senses and focus back in on the little things. In a world where we are often surrounded by the incessant noise of people, media, memes and madness, Winnie’s plight is terrifying yet also an invitation to slow down and stay in the moment.

Royal Exchange 25 May – 23 June

Images by Johan Persson