The Archive of Educated Hearts
Reviewed – 24th October 2018
“She keeps it on the right side of awkward, eliciting giggles as well as tears through poetic language and relaxed delivery”
‘There is no artifice; it’s just me’, quips Casey Jay Andrews as she welcomes us into her tiny, purpose-built shed. So begins the forty minute piece; less theatre, more installation, at the Pleasance this week.
The Archive of Educated Hearts is a fluid narrative, really more of a sister to spoken word and a cousin to acting, around themes of breast cancer, love and memory. British as we are, one would be forgiven for suppressing a gulp on entering the space. Intimacy is written large, with low lighting (an indication of the excellent lighting design, also by Andrews, to follow), family photos and antiquey objects scattered around. We’re an audience of just four on mismatched chairs around a vintage table. There’s nowhere to hide.
We’re quickly plunged into velvety darkness, before cosy lighting comes up on some photographs of four women on the table in front of us. Andrews doesn’t spare details of her own personal experience; her mum and all three of her aunts have a form of breast cancer, leaving her wider family at risk too. Again, this glut of emotion – love, joy, profound grief – would be liable to make your average Brit’s toes curl, but the experience is mediated through Andrew’s warmth and generosity. She keeps it on the right side of awkward, eliciting giggles as well as tears through poetic language and relaxed delivery.
Words alone don’t make this piece, though. Huge kudos must go to George Jennings, the composer, who was also apparently responsible for bringing on board the dulcet tones of Michael Cochrane of Archers’ fame for some voiceover interventions. We’re soundtracked throughout with lilting melodies, but cleverer still is the use of ambient sound – car horns in a frenzy of tooting below the voice of one breast cancer sufferer who made a trip to Vietnam, and beyond, to create memories with her daughter before – who knows what? The unfairness and mystery of cancer is fully explored here, with anger given space as well as love. Jennings’ score leaves room for both.
If any criticism can be levelled at this piece, tender and thoughtful as it is, it might be that it was at times hard to follow who, of the many women living with breast cancer whose voices are heard, was who. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, experiences shifting into one another kaleidoscopically. Similarly, a mealy-mouthed critic might wonder whether the rhythm of the piece, oscillating between Cochrane fruitily reading from a 1930s etiquette manual, recordings of participants and Andrews’s own discourse could start to feel a little repetitive; the pattern of leaning in whilst listening to personal accounts as Andrew lays out photographs of the speakers would, after much longer, start to feel formulaic.
But these would be rather ungenerous criticisms for a piece that wears its ongoing connections to the outside world so plainly on its sleeve. As we close, Andrews hands out cards from Coppafeel. These (‘keep me! I’m your handy reminder to check your boobs!’) include symptoms to look out for, demonstrating a streak of integrity that helps the piece resist any danger of being mawkish or memorialising.
Ultimately, the success of any theatre this intimate will rest in the hands of those guiding a tentative audience through it. With her generosity of experience and of welcome, Andrews ensures this is a success that will be meaningful for anyone who has loved – or lost.
Reviewed by Abi Davies
The Archive of Educated Hearts
Pleasance Theatre until 28th October
Previously reviewed at this venue