Sunday 8 February 2015

Theatre Review: Little Light (Orange Tree)

Little Light (Photo by Richard Davenport)

Continuing his first season’s eclectic mix of revivals (The Widowing of Mrs. HolroydWidowers’ Houses) and new writing (TheDistance, Pomona) - all linked by being early works by each of their writers - the Orange Tree’s Paul Miller follows his Bernard Shaw production with a play by Alice Birch, a writer whose work I’ve failed to catch up to now. Although Birch came on to the scene in 2011 with Many Moons and then won the 2014 George Devine Award for Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again at the RSC, Little Light actually pre-dates those plays: it was the first full-length script that Birch completed and one that is at last being staged following some revisions to it. Personally, though - and despite a proficient production by David Mercatali that certainly strives to find the writing’s strengths - I think this particular piece would have been better off left in the drawer after all.

A seaside house undergoing renovation provides the setting for a face-off between two couples. Clarissa arrives pregnant and rain-soaked at the seaside home of her sister Alison. There’s a fish pie in the oven – cooked by Alison’s lugubrious spouse Teddy  - but any notion that this is to be a run-of-the-mill family reunion soon disintegrates, as  the appearance of Clarissa’s lover Simon, and various small deviations from the established order of things, serve to disrupt the oddly arranged rites and rituals of a trio trapped by past trauma.  

Though Birch’s dialogue tends towards the off-puttingly mannered from the start (it’s all ostentatious rhythmic utterances, sudden “lyrical” surges and tediously repetitious profanity), the set-up of Little Light is relatively intriguing, and the production stays strong for about half of its 95 minute, interval-free running time. Making some effective use of the OT space (including the seldom-utilised top level), Mercatali once more demonstrates his gift for bringing out suggestive, ominous moments, aided by a sparse, sinister sound design by Max Pappenheim.

In particular, a memorably unsettling meal set-piece (no one will be rushing out for fish pie after this production, I think it’s fair to say) evokes the hostility underpinning social gatherings in a chilling way. Presenting family get-togethers as rituals of complicity which are contingent upon everyone adhering to the established script, the play seems on the cusp of revealing something truly disturbing about the strange sisterly relationship it presents. 

However, once the revelations of the overwrought second half kick in, Little Light starts to look merely banal, at times suggesting nothing so much as Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill taking turns to scrawl over an Alan Ayckbourn play. In essence, the piece is just another dark-secrets from-the-family-past melodrama, and while that familiar form could be made to work, the trauma at the heart of this piece failed to either move or convince this viewer  by the end, with potential emotional involvement foundering due to Birch’s dialogue, which feels, despite occasional arresting images, overly calculated and counterfeit. Compare the play to Tim Price’s Salt, Root and Roe – also a portrait of two sisters in a rural locale, and a work of genuine beauty and eccentricity – and Little Light’s shortcomings become all the clearer.   

The cast – Lorna Brown as Alison, Paul Rattray as Teddy, Yolanda Kettle as Clarissa and Paul Hickey as the bewildered outsider Simon - perform well, straining to give  even the most wincingly, heavy-handedly “poetic”  passages as much life and conviction as they can. But there’s not much any actor could make of two risibly ornate, painfully over-written monologues that conclude the piece, and, during these, I felt any goodwill I’d had towards the play evaporate. The establishment of Birch as an exciting and distinctive new voice is certainly underway: she’s Guardian-endorsed, for one, and has a new work coming up in Rufus Norris’s first season at the National Theatre. But I found Little Light to be an unaffecting piece of work that offers little in the way of real insight and much in the way of grating pretentiousness. 

Booking until 7th March. 

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