Orange Tree Theatre, London – until 26 May 2018
Now, on one hand, I’m a bit concerned for the team at the Orange Tree. This is their third play examining grief in the past six months. I hope they’re all okay. Yet, on the other hand, I am left, once again, marvelling at the vision and quality control of this little powerhouse of a theatre as Paul Miller and his team have, yet again, created a stunning production that not only feels fresh and new, but also is extremely delicate and cleverly complex in its representation of the many manifestations of pain and sorrow.
Mayfly, this debut play from Joe White, throws us straight into it from the off. It’s early morning in a Shropshire village and the sun’s rays are just starting to peep through the tree branches as we watch Ben (Simon Scardifield), a middle-aged man evidently crushed with sadness, wade out deep into a river in an act of unintended suicide. He wants to die, for the current to take him under. Only he’s denied by the sudden intervention of Harry (Irfan Shamji), a young lad passing by on his way to work at the local pub, who rushes into the river and drags Ben out.
The scene that follows is a masterclass, it really is. It perfectly captures that tsunami of emotions of those attempting to kill themselves of both anger and relief at being stopped, mixed with almost painfully comedic awkwardness from those ordinary people who have rescued them wondering how on earth to address what has just happened. And this scene becomes the gateway to a play that, quite brilliantly, maintains this almost impossible fine balance between tragedy and comedy throughout.
For Ben, his clothes soaked right through, returns to a place which is ‘home’ in name only. His wife, Cat (Niky Wardley), barely notices him, so lost is she in her own world. Her face strained and tired, her thoughts always elsewhere. Whilst his daughter, Loops (Evelyn Hoskins) has gone the other way, creating a tough girl exterior to nurse her own broken heart.
There is an unspoken, unnamed, unidentified grief in this family, and it soon becomes apparent that this trauma has cleaved this family apart and that today marks the anniversary of the origins of this pain.
In such a scenario, this play could have tottered on in ever-increasing scenes of anguish. But instead, Joe has weaved in some deliciously funny set-ups by having the three members of this family all link up to Harry in some way during this one day. It gives this production an element of farce, which actually works superbly well, deftly handled as it is by director, Guy Jones.
There were times when I thought to myself, are we stretching it a bit here? Is any of this feeling increasingly incredulous? But, you know what, some fine and mightily sensitive acting performances from Irfan and Evelyn in particular, keep this play onside.
So, over the course of this one day, as the half-truths and secrets these four characters keep – willingly and unwillingly – weave an ever more elaborate web of both humour and deceit, so eventually we reach the crescendo when the pain of what we keep hidden just becomes too much to bear, but where we realise that the act of sharing can heal.
There is so much that’s interesting and important in this production, and I particularly liked the way that this show, though fulfilling and satisfactory, doesn’t pan out quite the way you expect. Grief, you see, cripples its victims in different ways. We each respond differently. Some people’s troubles may be easy to read in their faces and body language; others… well, it seems we are all carrying sadness in some way and that it’s not always obvious.
But there’s also a profound message of hope here too.
The play is called ‘mayfly’ as it was these little insects that were humming around the river bank in the opening scene, a distracting topic of conversation where it was impossible to talk about what had just happened. And it is here that Harry first learns that mayflies only live for one day – they are born in the morning, mate in the afternoon, and die at dusk. “A lot can happen in a day,” Harry thinks aloud.
And that is exactly the message here. A lot can happen in a day. If you too feel desperate, that there is nothing but darkness with no way out, hang on. That’s what Joe White is telling us in this play – please, hang on. So much can happen in a day. And the most surprising acts of kindness and generosity can come from the most unsuspecting of sources.
A beautiful, beautiful, heartrendingly wonderful production.