FringeReview UK 2023
Ikaria’s an essential play and marks Philippa Lawford – already at 25 with her own theatre company of six years and as director – a voice unafraid to use – and kern – direct experience; and create riveting theatre.
The pauses of Simon alone, whole mini-scenes punctuating ones with Mia, bespeak someone confident of theatre business, silence, and acting that silence outside of words. That’s one of the things that marks Lawford out as different. Most of us throw words, hoping they’ll stick. And these aren’t Pinteresque silences: they’re precise, move the action on, if only agonisingly. Essential and a must-see.
Written and Directed by Philippa Lawford, Associate Director/Producer Izzy Parriss, Lighting Designer Shane Gill, Composer Laurie Blundell, Intimacy Co-ordinator Stella Moss, PR Chloe Nelkin Consulting
Till December 2nd
“Ikaria Court. Sounds like the name of a prison.” Eagerly awaited since its debut at the Old Red Lion last year, Philippa Lawford’s first play Ikaria arrives on its final leg of a two-and-a-half-month-tour at the Park Theatre. Lawford also directs with Associate Director/Producer Izzy Parriss for Lawford’s Tightrope Theatre.
Simon (James Wilbraham) ushers Mia (Andrea Gatchalian) into his student room. It could be any uni, though posh Simon’s studying Classics and even the vaguest references mark this as the Oxford (and Cambridge) Lawford studied at.
Eng-Lit Mia’s patently hoping something might happen, but Simon, back from a year out is determined to buckle down, and doesn’t take the bait. Mia, first one of her family to go to uni, bursts with the fresher freedom of everything at once: there’s some edgily funny speciesism about freshers at the start.
“Am I wasting my time?” asks Mia on a second visit, bringing with her a gift of fairy lights to soften the harsh lighting (don’t we remember it?) with a subtle suggestion that it’ll feel a lot more romantic too. The gulf between eighteen (“that is quite young, yeah”) and twenty-one (“Oh my God”) yawns.
But it’s Mia who’s more worldly, more amorous, and prepares to fight for them both. If Ikaria is “a love story about finding salvation in someone else” as it’s billed, Lawford never shies away from suggesting how that can prove almost impossible, yet a heartbeat from happening. Simon’s immersed in the Odyssey, more lost than Odysseus. Mia’s barely heard of Penelope, yet never gives up.
Gatchalian’s superb at pointing up the ache in the humour, as we laugh with her frustration. She’s superb at pauses too, hurt, anticipation, or staring resignedly, resolute. Gatchalian wholly lives along the lines of silence Lawford lays out for her, has possibly even helped shape them. And their teasingly delicate parries are pointed up in Stella Moss’s intimacy co-ordination; full of butterfly passes and hesitations.
The focus is slightly more on Wilbraham’s Simon. It’s his room, his solitude, not Mia’s we see, save occasionally when Mia’s invaded his space when he’s not there. Wilbraham is riveting, slowly passing a razor across his lathered face by the washtsand, flinchingly regarding himself, aching with anxiety and demons.
He’s also haplessly funny: Simon’s very smart, quite useless at negotiating some practicalities, in denial and retreat. He’s continually both charmed and infuriated by Mia’s jibbing and pushing him to do something about his depression.
It mightn’t help too that Mia’s confident, and though she does falter (you begin to fear her overmastering care for Simon will impact badly) she pulls herself up with an article. Mia’s turbo-charging her experience, with no posh flat to fall back on. At key points we see her engaging with student life, becoming more blasé, fitting in and learning its existential grammar. Simon slowly drops out. Again.
Mia grows up past Simon because from an unprivileged family she has to: she’s fought to her place purely on merit. Though her Independent piece originated with student paper editor Corbin (inevitable joke) Mia admits he shared her name on the byline: “Because I’m a better writer than him.” No false modesty.
When Simon counters that despite privilege he has a student loan, Mia’s mild scorn is damning. He’s had posh education right through: class confident in a word. He saw Wagner’s Götterdämmerung with his father, the only time this KPMG monster cried. In Ikaria, the island where they live to over 100 but also where Icarus crashed and burned, the gods never fare well.
The moment they dream of Ikaria, rapt possibility glows with Shane Gill’s magnificent lighting, subtle all through, from fairy-lights through ferocious naked bulbs through to spotlighting and hopeless dawns. Laurie Blundell’s haunting piano composition, elegiac, picking through the night, is only interrupted by ‘You see all the room’.
Lawford has a chilly sense of how counselling’s been impacted too. Simon’s report during a hopeful upswing rings achingly true. I’ve known a devastating case only recently with such services in disarray.
Mia pushes beyond their agreed envelope. She infuriates by tidying up like – as Simon sees it – a cleaner he knows at home; and once more personally crosses a line. Similarly, you don’t know how he might react when an allegation against a friend he’s known since eight is carried by Mia. Simon, spinning himself, has a strong moral compass: you see in part why Mia loves him.
Lawford, Tightrope Theatre and Parriss must be responsible for the chillingly anonymous, L-shaped, white-painted breezeblock set: bleak, exact in its single bed, desk, wheelie chair, wooden chair, beanbag small shelf of books and functioning free-standing wash basin. It’s an anywhere modern student block of the last 40 years. And what happens can happen to anyone.
There’s been some shift with the open-ended finale. If you’ve seen it, it’ll be worth seeing again.
My only quibble is Simon’s elegiac quote from the Odyssey, so magnificently distracting from the action, so plangently apposite. Though just an excerpt, it isn’t credited – which should have been Methuen/Bloomsbury’s job in part; out of courtesy. For reference it’s Robert Fagles’ popular, elegant 1996 translation, rather than Ezra Pound’s, or the much-acclaimed Emily Wilson of 2018, dramatized twice at Jermyn Street.
There’s a time to step briefly out of role and state that if the affluent and less affluent want their uni children to come out healthy, or at all, they’d best start fighting for them politically at every level. I’ve seen it half my professional life at poetry/mental health charity Survivors’ Poetry. And at Cambridge there was only the occasional chaplain and me, when a much younger friend couldn’t bear solitude anymore and camped in my room through part of finals, me insulated with far easier PhD rhythms. Still, I made a friend for life.
Ikaria’s an essential play and marks Lawford – already at 25 a director with her own theatre company of six years – as a voice unafraid to use – and kern – direct experience; and create riveting theatre. Anything she writes now should excite interest.
The pauses of Simon alone, whole mini-scenes punctuating ones with Mia, bespeak someone confident of theatre business, silence, and acting that silence outside words. That’s one of the things that distinguishes Lawford. Most of us throw words, hoping they’ll stick. And these aren’t Pinteresque silences: they’re precise, move the action on, if only agonisingly. Essential and a must-see.