This is a play about love, but really, it’s about how love isn’t enough. We meet Ash and Lucy, both at the beginning and end of their relationship, flashing between the two, waiting for one to inevitably explain the other. Ultimately, despite having a genuine affection and care for one another, these two are doomed. The homophobia amongst which we’ve all grown up is not something you can simply shirk off; it’s toxic and invasive, getting in your head, making you afraid. Ruining relationships. Keeping you lonely.
Zoë Birkbeck and Lydia Cashman have a sincere chemistry which seems to grow organically on stage as their relationship progresses, all the way from awkwardly friendly to intensely intimate. The dialogue is warm and engaging, full of quippy back-and-forths, and writer Natasha Brotherdale Smith does well to flesh out these characters in only an hour.
Staging is non-existent really, barring a large metal chest full of props, but it turns out that’s all that’s needed for such an intensely character-based narrative.
In the past few years, Theatre503 has become the gold standard for pub theatre, and new writing to boot. It turns out, you don’t have to trawl out the same ten famous playwrights over and again to make a hit. I Can’t Hear you is a perfect example of how vital new writing is, bringing further nuance and empathy to the LGBTQ+ experience, along with plenty of wit and charm.
“a quite remarkable feat of theatre making all round”
If you could go back in time, what would you do? What would you change?
It is an over familiar and well-worn question. The subject of many late-night rambling discussions, and a theme in many more dramas on stage and on screen. So, another play in which the characters frequently ask one another the question suggests a claggy hour and a half of yawn stifling.
But don’t be fooled. Safaa Benson-Effiom’s debut full-length play approaches the question in a wonderfully fresh and deeply harrowing way. Partly because, although a leitmotif, it is secondary to the narrative; unanswered and pushed into a corner by the distressing circumstances and events that spearhead the action. “Til Death Do Us Part” is essentially a drama about love and relationships and what happens when they fracture. We don’t always have the language to express the pain and grief that is felt.
After fifteen years of marriage, Daniel (Richard Holt) and Sylvia (Danielle Kassaraté) find themselves simultaneously drifting apart and trapped together. They are a fairly normal couple, with fairly normal lives and a teenage son (Jude Chinchen) from whom they think the darker undercurrents of their marriage are hidden. When faced with their worst nightmare the couple are forced to confront the years of unspoken resentment. Unarmed, except for the rapier-like honesty which cuts to the surface, they fight their common demons alone.
Benson-Effiom plays with time. We are, at once, in the present and the past but the text yields no confusion under Justina Kehinde’s extremely slick direction that creates a world where memories and ghosts are one and the same. Tom Foskett-Barnes’ ominously evocative sound design lends touches of the supernatural, although we are still firmly rooted in reality. It is a quite remarkable feat of theatre making all round.
But at the forefront are the performances. Holt and Kassaraté dress their characters in more layers than you can count. Both of them unpredictable, they seize the danger inherent in Benson-Effiom’s writing. The portrayal of their heartache, loss, failure, regrets and fears are as blistering as the sparks that fly between them. Chinchen’s Andrew is equally mesmerising as the schoolboy, all smiles and effervescence concealing invisible cracks, playing his parents off each other right through to the tragic climax. In a novel twist the climax precedes the build-up, which paradoxically intensifies each.
The exploration of grief and blame is profound but not heavy handed. A short line of dialogue is enough to convey a decade of emotion. We live in a society where platitudes abound that try to make sense of the chaos that extreme loss wreaks. This insightful production makes them flesh. A riveting, must-see ninety minutes of theatre. If you can see beyond the trigger warnings, Safaa Benson-Effiom is a name to look out for.