“Rikki Beadle-Blair directs with a flair that matches the heightened narrative”
In Anthony Minghella’s film ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’, Alan Rickman’s character returns from the dead specifically to help Juliet Stevenson get over him by tarnishing her idealised memory of him. As a ghost, he irritates her and behaves in ways that infuriate her. In Tom Ratcliffe’s “Wreckage”, now playing at the Turbine Theatre, a similar concept is deployed, but without the poignancy of Rickman’s intention. The two characters, dead or alive, seem to spend a lot of time irritating each other, dredging up past (and future) frustrations and misdemeanours. Although in between there are abundant declarations of love and we eventually understand that the shouty tantrums are, in effect, signifiers of grief.
Ratcliffe’s script is finely crafted and chronologically complex, moving between the past, present and future. Sam (Tom Ratcliffe) and Noel (Michael Walters) are in the perfect relationship. Noel, being older, more laid back and assured, is often the one to smooth out Sam’s rattled and jumpy mind. This is established at the outset during which Noel agrees to rush out on an errand to placate Sam, grabbing the car keys, promising to be back in twenty minutes. The scene, and its tragic consequence, is played out multiple times, reflecting the torturous “if only…” reaction that loops in Sam’s mind – possibly forever.
Separated by death, the couple become paradoxically inseparable and what ensues is an exploration of guilt and grief. Ratcliffe effectively portrays the torment of how to cope with loss as he battles with what to cling on to and what (or rather when) to move on. The ‘reality’ of Noel’s ghost in his mind is powerful enough for Noel to take over and control the narrative. The passion brought out in the performances is undeniable, but any true sense of heartbreak is undermined by a complete lack of subtlety. We long for more poignancy and silence amidst the shouting and screaming and writhing.
Despite a reluctance to tone down the performances, Rikki Beadle-Blair directs with a flair that matches the heightened narrative, and with the clever use of video projections and Rachel Sampley’s lighting we are guided clearly through the shifts in time. We witness the couple meeting for the first time, and we are privy to posthumous revelations of infidelity. The influence of in-laws and wranglings of property and possessions are explored in an ingenious fashion by the writing, casting fresh perspective on what would normally be a run of the mill relationship. We are asked to think, and to challenge our preconceptions about how we might cope. But ultimately, as compelling as it is on paper, the emotional connection is left wanting.
The idea is not new, but the execution is innovative. The tag line is “I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you”. Sam is young when he loses the love of his life and he goes on to live a long, fulfilling life. The message is that ‘love never dies’, and they will eventually be reunited. In a hurried finale, we are treated to a slideshow of Sam’s three-score-years-and-ten that lead up to their reunion. It is a lifetime, during which Sam does move on. But is he living a lie all along?
“Wreckage” draws you in, and whirls you around in its turmoil with two (for the most part) terrific performances. But it is strangely unmoving. Petulance too often pushes grief out of the way, while the mixed message gets in the way. The character you most feel for is the underwritten Christian – Sam’s new, lifelong, partner (very briefly played by Walters). He puts up with Sam for life, while all along Sam is yearning for the day that he can join Noel again – for eternity. Really? Come on – you spent most of your time arguing!
“unquestionably funny and also heartbreakingly sad”
We need to talk about “Steve”. Or rather Steven. And Stephen. And Esteban (the Spanish form of Stephen). There’s another Steve, too, in Mark Gerrard’s tragicomedy who lurks, unseen, offstage but just as instrumental in the unravelling of the tightly knitted relationships of his namesakes and their best buddies. Even the late Stephen Sondheim is ever present throughout this production, to whom it is dedicated; his music a constant undercurrent, and wisps of his lyrics reverently scattered over the dialogue. There is something elegiac about Gerrard’s bittersweet tale. A parable, almost. Self-aware and conscious of the passage of time.
The play opens with Steven celebrating his 47th birthday in a downtown New York bar. Although not in a fully-fledged midlife crisis, Steven is struggling with the transition into middle age. A stay-at-home Dad, he is also grappling with the notion that his long-term partner is having an affair with his best friend’s partner. Meanwhile his closest confidante, Carrie, is terminally ill. Fuelled by vodka stingers he inevitably spills out his emotions, upsetting his guests and the glasses on the table. But no matter, Argentine waiter Esteban is on hand to clear up the literal and figurative mess. So, too, is the rewind button which replays the scene avoiding the outburst and offering a smoother transition into the unfolding narrative that follows.
Andrew Keates’ spirited and passionate direction perfectly mixes a human story with a heightened, almost musical delivery from the characters. Whenever it becomes a touch absurdist we are pulled back into the nitty gritty of everyday life. Infidelity, parenthood, monogamy, mortality, impending death, lost opportunities. We all know the score. We may have heard it before, but Gerrard manages to make it fresher by putting it in the context of same sex relationships. But even that concept, like the play’s protagonists, is reaching a certain age, and Gerrard is cleverly questioning whether the gay community itself might be having a midlife crisis. ‘Where do we go from here?’ he seems to be asking. While celebrating the huge progress made over the decades, there is a whole new set of questions now. Inspired by the passing of the New York marriage bill, Gerrard is reflecting on the double-edged nature of the milestone. “Oh my god, now we can get married. What are we supposed to do with that?”
This is definitely not a ‘be careful what you wish for’ scenario, however. Nor is it a caricature of the gay American Dream. The writing is too sharp for that and at times the sexuality is irrelevant. It speaks to everyone. It is fundamentally about relationships and friendships and how we look out for and after each other. It is unquestionably funny and also heartbreakingly sad. Keates makes us care deeply about the personalities laid bare before us, aided by his impressive cast.
David Ames holds the fort as Steven, hilariously abrasive and camp but deeply caring and easily wounded. Jenna Russell gives an absolutely glowing performance as Carrie, the bold and brazen lesbian confronting her terminal illness with more strength than all the men around her put together. All the performances are exceptional; strongly twisting the dialogue – wringing out the laughs and the tears in equal measure. The highs and lows are mirrored by Ben Papworth at the piano, echoing the emotions with his dynamic and varied accompaniment.
The phrase ‘Once Upon A Time’ is a leitmotif throughout the show that reminds us that this is a New York Fairy Tale – in many senses of the word. But it also reminds us that the happy endings promised are more elusive than we once thought. We have come a long way, Gerrard seems to be saying, but there’s still further to go. But, hey, forget the psychobabble – “Steve” is in essence a hugely entertaining tragicomedy. Sharper than most that cover similar ground, it cuts through societal and sexual divides and then unwittingly sews them together. It appeals to all of us – and is a ‘must see’.