Big Big Sky
Reviewed – 7th August 2021
“draws us into the big big hearts of these characters in a beautifully low-key way”
There is a moment in Tom Wells’ “Big Big Sky” where Angie, the café owner, talks of once sighting an albatross gliding across the Yorkshire shoreline. Nobody believed her. “You should have taken a photograph” she is told; which she rebuffs by explaining she would rather have just experienced the moment. The sentiment personifies the play that, in our Instagram age, rolls into our hearts like a breath of fresh air.
This burst of fresh air sweeps in from the North Sea onto the remote hamlet of Kilnsea on the Yorkshire coast. It is always closing time here. The café is closing in each scene, perhaps for good this time. The summer season is over, and as the long winter months beckon, even the way of life is tottering on the brink of extinction. But the café is a haven of hope, of tea and sympathy. Run by Angie (Jennifer Daley), helped by the younger Lauren (Jessica Jolleys), the clientele has flown south – along with the local bird population. Lauren’s father Dennis (Matt Sutton) has a habit of turning up for his freebie supper just as the ‘café open’ sign is dragged inside each evening. It is a cosy ritual, the cloak of which sometimes slips from the shoulder to reveal the bruises born of sadness and grief.
In walks Ed, an enthusiastic conservationist and ecologist, driven to this backwater for a job interview. Today he would be labelled as being ‘on the spectrum’, but in this timeless setting he is merely awkward; initially shy. A vegan geek, Sam Newton effortlessly makes his character loveable, pitching the mannerisms with precision and choreographing perfectly timed moments of understated humour. A captivating performance. It is tempting to say he stands out, but he is matched by the other three, all of whom bring a powerful and penetrating realism to the roles. Dennis bubbles with the Luddite gruffness of a man who has lived in one place for too long, yet Matt Sutton refocuses this myopic vision and we can clearly see a grieving heart that beats beneath. Jessica Jolley’s Lauren is a gorgeous mix of sense and sensibility, who mocks and respects in equal measure – particularly Ed, for whom she falls. Holding the fort is Jennifer Daley, an outstanding portrayal as the maternal yet heart-achingly vulnerable Angie.
Wells’ writing takes centre stage along with the actors. Nothing much happens but it is brimming with backstories and the subtle and melancholic prose draws out the sadness and grief in just the right measure that it sits comfortably alongside the humour. Tessa Walker’s direction reflects this, unafraid to string out the silences between the clamour of emotion, forming the rhythm of the breakers and backwash on the shingle outside the café. A refreshing and bracing combination, capped by Bob Bailey’s authentic coastal tea-room design.
Each character is mourning the loss of a loved one – a mother, a wife, or a daughter. But the will to keep moving perseveres. The café is on the brink of extinction, but it perseveres. Like the hope that shines through the cracks of these characters’ sadness, it will always be present. Life does go on. This type of theatre is sadly often thought to be obsolete in today’s climate, where everything strives to be innovative, shocking, or polemic. “Big Big Sky” definitely disproves that notion. It draws us into the big big hearts of these characters in a beautifully low-key way. It may be a harsh world they live in, but warmth glows from this snapshot of their lives, which will stay in your heart longer than any photograph.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Robert Day
Big Big Sky
Hampstead Theatre until 11th September
Previously reviewed at this venue in 2021: