Part of the great delight of Lindsey Turner's current take on Under Milk Wood at the National Theatre is the production's staging in-the-round, which helps to make its care home setting an environment that the audience can feel fully immersed in. With Turner's radiant production fresh in the mind, returning to one of our smallest but most vital in-the-round spaces - the mighty Orange Tree - for Tinuke Craig's revival of Bryony Lavery's 2004 play Last Easter felt like a particularly exciting prospect. Unfortunately, though, where Under Milk Wood was an exceptionally warm, sensitive and embracing experience, Last Easter proves forced, obvious and off-putting from the start.
Told via the tiresome, self-conscious mix of narration, audience address and dialogue that seems to have become a default mode for contemporary dramatists who can't always be bothered to dramatise, Lavery's play focuses on four friends - lighting designer June, performers Gash and Joy, and prop-maker Leah - as they navigate the news of June's diagnosis with secondary cancer. The first half trivialises Lourdes, as the foursome take a trip there in the tentative hope of getting the atheist June healed. And the second half trivialises euthanasia, as June, her condition deteriorating, asks her friends to carry out an assisted suicide. Throughout, bad jokes and banter are meant to serve as a shield covering the protagonists' pain at the prospective loss of their friend.
I say "meant to" because that's what the play, extremely frugal with honest emotion, never makes us feel, in fact. And Craig's production - staged with a spase, casual set by Hannah Wolfe that mostly consists of four chairs and a keyboard, but at least boasting a brilliant, expressive lighting design by the great Elliot Griggs (Pomona, An Octoroon) - only exacerbates the writing's trivializing tendencies. Compared to an intelligent film like Jessica Hausner's Lourdes (2009) Last Easter could be a cartoon. Barring a few attempts at poetic flourishes, a fatally larky tone dominates, and leads, in a couple of cases, to an over-emphatic performance style that's too much for the small space.
Since the characters lack context and depth, it's probably not the actors' fault that the four never even convince as a group of friends: in particular, Peter Caulfield 's quipping, cruising, Garland-loving Gash (he's GAY, ok), and Ellie Piercy's Joy, a highly-strung party girl haunted by a boyfriend who committed suicide, don't develop much beyond stereotype. Both play and production feel at once antic and hollow, with the status of the four protagonists as "theatre people" leading to several half-baked meta moments, some of which result in ironies that can't always have been intended. "This is undramatic," notes Gash at a few points. Well, yes, when a playwright insists on telling the audience instead of showing or evoking things to them, it is. "The best thing about religion is the lighting," Naana Agyei-Ampadu's June remarks early on. It's by far the best thing about this production, too.
Last Easter is booking at the Orange Tree until 7 August.