Royal Court Theatre, London – until 11 March 2023
Nina, an achingly cool yet awkward young Londoner, wasn’t expecting to meet Gabriel at a BBQ in Tooting, but she does. Their burgeoning relationship seems perfect. Descriptions of dates, parties, meeting each others’ families and moving in together feel natural and healthy, until things start to deteriorate. Moments that were previously joyful become tense, and physical affection is now forceful. As much as this is a monologue about falling in love, it’s also a piece about its deterioration into abuse and finding a way out.
Sabrina Wu brings a younger-Millennial cynicism to Nina, who drifts through life without much in the way of ambition or goals. She is impulsive and lives in the moment; at times this is charming and at others less so. Wong Davies has written Nina as sometimes brash and often abrupt. This, combined with her lack of drive, makes her an emphatic antihero. At times, she’s not even that – the way she treats Gabriel certainly makes her unlikable at points in the story. Yet, she’s undoubtedly human with plenty of insecurities and as a racially marginalised woman who also experiences abuse, it’s difficult to not side with her. Therein lies the play’s success – it’s irrevocably human, with the main character reflecting the good and bad in all of us.
However, Davies’ writing style is decidedly literary. As much as this is a dramatic staging that Wu engagingly delivers, it could just as easily be a novella. The bulk of the text is narrative, addressed to Gabriel in the second-person. Whilst this isn’t a bad thing on stage per se, it does beg the question as to why it was written as a play when a reader could use the subtext to conjure a Nina in their own vision.
Directed by Anna Himali Howard with Izzy Rabey, Wu starts by sticking to the raised platform in the centre of the stage that’s dominated by a bed. Piles of dirt and moss surround the platform, as if it had been excavated after a disaster – an apt metaphor (designed by Mydd Pharo). Also fittingly, as the story gets messier, so does Wu. As the boundaries of her relationship disintegrate and she is no longer safe, she ventures beyond the confines of the previously tidy platform. By the end, dirt is everywhere and Nina cannot be contained.
As much as Nina displays resilience and fortitude throughout the show, she is also self-conscious and delicate. This balance, and Wong Davies’ lyrical writing, are what makes this an excellent, intimate production.
Graceland runs through 11 March.
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