King’s Head Theatre, London – until 1 October 2022
Watching Tanya Barfield’s bittersweet two hander, receiving its UK premiere here following an Off-Broadway run and a couple of American regional productions, it reminded me that last year’s critically lauded West End revival of Nick Payne’s Constellations never gave us a lesbian version. In its Olivier Award-winning last outing, that time-twisting love story was done by a duo of gay men, two older actors, an early middle-aged pair, and a glamorous Black couple… but never two women. Barfield’s play may not be as ambitious or intellectually rigorous as Constellations but shares a similar dramatic DNA and gives an idea of what a female-led iteration of Payne’s modern masterpiece might have been like.
As it is, Bright Half Life has much to recommend it, especially the nimble, inventive direction of Steven Kunis which plays out under a rather beautiful kite shaped neon lighting grid (kite flying is a recurring motif in the text) and the exquisite, detailed performances of Eva Fontaine and Susie McKenna as the women who fall in and out of love across decades but never in a chronological order.
Fontaine and McKenna’s weighty stage presences, emotional dexterity and ability to switch in the blink of an eye from playful to grave and back again, are required to do quite a bit of the heavy lifting for a text that, for all its intelligence and originality, is sometimes frustratingly short on flavour and specificity when sketching its two central, and only, characters.
Both actresses brilliantly fill in the blanks by sheer force of personality, formidable stage technique and the fact that, despite being very different from each other, they are each so damn lovable. Erica is messy and unfocused but McKenna invests her with such charm that it’s not hard to see why Fontaine’s tough but kind go-getter Vicky falls for her. Despite the contrasts between the women, Barfield makes a convincing case for why they got together but also, sadly, why despite having children together as well as a raft of other life experiences, their union wasn’t built to last. There is a romanticism here as well that is sweet without ever cloying.
As with Constellations, scenes are replayed from different perspectives, and the storytelling is determinedly non-linear. A regular preoccupation of Barfield’s writing is a fascination with the tension between air and earth. As well as the aforementioned kite-flying, we see the women skydiving and suspended high on a Ferris wheel, and tellingly it’s the controlled, more “sensible” Vicky who is unphased while the freer spirited Erica is terrified. By contrast, we also eavesdrop on the women in bed, and then displaying a humorous delight in mattress shopping and testing out the product by bouncing on it like a pair of cackling children.
The tragic aspects of the story, such as terminal illness and the breakdown of the relationship, are represented with a commendable lack of sentimentality. If the dialogue is unremarkable, the subtext and chemistry the leading ladies imbue it with, is something to treasure. So too is the exquisitely subtle ways they age up and down scene by scene without changing an iota of their appearance. Alex Lewer’s lighting design is a subtle but powerful aspect of the production as a whole.
Ultimately, this is a highly watchable comedy drama that challenges enough and is spiced up by a novel approach to dramaturgy then further elevated by a pair of superb performances and a spare but energised staging. It isn’t revelatory, but it’s emotional clarity filtered through a clever structure means it’s not hard to see why it made the journey across the Atlantic.