Hope Theatre, London – until 17 February 2018
Guest reviewer: G. Wood
Pennyworth Productions presents two bite-size plays at the Hope Theatre this spring, both featuring the writing and acting talent of Julia Cranney, and together they make for an engaging and insightful evening.
Interestingly, both titles would work for either play, as themes of isolation, mental health (and cake) echo throughout the performance and, though they differ in form and narrative structure, they make for perfect bedfellows.
The first time we meet Ava and Daniel in Moments they are both asleep, ready to start their day working in dreary jobs within the empty heart of the big city, each narrating for us the life of the other as we meander through their daily routine.
Ava appears to be searching for her place in the world (there are hints of Aspergers as well as a deep hunger for connection) whereas Daniel, despite his own painful history, seems to know where and who he is, their shared loneliness quite palpable.
There are moments when their separate voices become one, evoking a powerful reminder of the pain of being alone in the city, before we carry on our journey through their separate eyes.
Strangely, this structural device of each recording the movement of the other is both the play’s strength and weakness; there are a few points where it edges dangerously close to becoming wearisome but the pay off, whenever these two lost souls finally start to make some connection, is actually made more welcome and stronger for what has come before.
As Ava, Julia Cranney delivers her written words with aplomb, drawing us gradually into the world of a fragile young woman and Simon Mattacks brings warmth, humour and an endearing awkwardness to his Security Guard Daniel, helping us forgive him his bluntness and a sometimes archaic take on the world.
Post interval is Empty Beds, Anna Reid’s simple but effective design shifting from arena to traverse as we are now staring at a train carriage; here the writer plays the eldest of three sisters, heading off to visit their brother Michael on his birthday. Immediately accessible, the play weaves neatly in real time through the strains of the sibling dynamic, bouncing from joy to anger to pain with the deftness of a truly gifted writer. Although she is sometimes hampered by the need to get characters off stage for dramatic purpose, what Cranney really nails is how no family moment ever happens without being imbued by a sense of history, how an argument is never wholly about the matter in hand, but always stained by what has come before. And director Kate Treadell guides us carefully through it all, drawing strong performances from all three actors to create a convincing picture of siblings and all the baggage that this brings. Completely unrecognisable from the first play, Cranney plays the hard edged but loving Catherine, alongside Carys Wright (beautifully ethereal as Emily) and Debbie Brannan (sensational as Michael’s twin sister Jo). There is a moment where we hear (almost imperceptibly) the train that they are on grind to a halt: perhaps a metaphor for how impossible it is for any family to move forward, especially when there is still pain and reprisal to be dealt with.
Cranney is exceptionally adept at bringing her simple observations of the world to life, be it the mass production of eggs in London or finding those hidden plug sockets on a train, and throughout the evening the truth of these smaller moments help the larger ones resonate more powerfully, helped along by an excellent cast of five (wait, four), effective design all round and Treadell’s assured direction. The Hope continues to programme top rate fringe theatre and these two bijou theatrical nuggets from Pennyworth are no exception.