“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.
“Occasionally melancholic, always mesmerising, totally memorable. A masterpiece of theatre”
“To play with fear is to play with fire. No, worse, much worse, than playing with fire. Fire has limits.”
Tennessee Williams knew the importance of opening lines, and in “The Two Character Play” he captures the essence of what is to come. It is simultaneously reassuring and unsettling. It’s a theme that runs through much of his earlier writing, but in this later work it is much less opaque; we know the flame won’t be held back by the yellowing parchment through which we see it flicker.
In a way Williams was playing with fire. Rather than relying on his critical and popular acclaim he wanted to experiment and expand his writing style. It met with a mixed reception at its world premiere at the Hampstead Theatre, disconcerting critics and audiences. But over half a century later it definitely bites with a sharper resonance than ever before. The timing is perfect. A two-hander, we are introduced to Felice and then his sister Clare. They are both “artists of the theatre. Long prepared for working under unexpected conditions”. They have been abandoned by the rest of the company but are nevertheless determined that the show must go on despite the “eccentricities of the time”. Suffocated by their isolation and afraid to go out, the characters’ only choices are to face each other or to face their demons.
The structure is a play within a play, and Sam Yates’ production has perfectly captured this concept. As Felice and Clare prepare for their performance the houselights remain lit, the lighting rig is at floor level and the space is littered with the props and unassembled pieces of scenery. We don’t quite know when the pre-show ends and the show begins. Just as we are never sure of the shifts between the actors and their characters; whether we are in reality or in the play. Or in the play within the play. The blurred lines are always intentional, reflecting the brother and sister losing their own grip on reality.
Zubin Varla, as Felice, and Kate O’Flynn, as Clare, are outstanding and unforgettable. The chemistry burns and crackles with an enforced intimacy and horrific backstory that keeps them forever entwined. The fire of their performance is fanned by the many refreshing waves of comedy that they bring to the roles. It’s a skill that is rarely seen in theatre and Varla and O’Flynn wield it mercilessly through their wonderful shifts in mood, without diminishing the desperation that motivates their characters.
The second act dips into a darker domain. Lee Curran’s shadowy lighting and Dan Balfour’s surround sound design heighten the mood. A false ending trips us up and unfortunately dispels the magic momentarily as we slip into a flash of Gothic Horror. But the poignancy returns as the siblings (are they the actors or are they the characters they are portraying?) start to re-enact the tragedy that befell their parents.
They are unable to see it through. It is as unresolved as the play itself, and as the couple pull the plug on proceedings they are again alone on the bare stage. Their (imagined?) audience has also abandoned them, while they are imprisoned in the theatre. Too tired to be frightened now, they realise that fear is limited. “Clare, your mind’s going out” whispers Felice. Tennessee Williams was haunted and inspired by his sister Rose who was plagued by mental illness. “You must never make fun of insanity” Rose once reproved her brother “It’s worth than death”. In “The Two Character Play” Felice is left a note by the company that abandoned them: ‘Your sister and you are… insane!’. Perhaps they are, perhaps they aren’t. Varla and O’Flynn portray the characters with a perfect mix of exaggeration and sensitivity of which Williams would be proud. There is no answer really, just as the play has no real conclusion. We can part with reality at times, but we can never part with each other.
Occasionally melancholic, always mesmerising, totally memorable. A masterpiece of theatre.