FringeReview UK 2023
Like any first-rate actor, Louise Faulkner lets each eyebrow rise and fall: Quizzical, hurt, amused, they all register. A work to be savoured for its exuberant telling of one of the most painful things to hit any of us, through nightmare to laughter to loving oneself, to the hope of love. Highly recommended.
OSO Arts Centre, Barnes
Directed by Jason Moore, for OnBook Theatre, Lighting & Sound Jonny Danciger, Set and Costume Design, Ian Nicholas, Photography Giacomo Giannelli, and props by OSO Arts Centre
Till May 19th
Over the years Dublin-based Geraldine Aron has subtly updated her 2003 hit My Brilliant Divorce, made famous in its debut with Dawn French’s searing, personal traversal as Irish-born but English-living Angela, whose husband Max drops a letter in her hand and departs.
Lightly informed by Aron’s own experience it celebrates grief, suicidal thoughts and sheer joy with exuberance and ultimately, hard-won affirmation.
Its brilliance resides in taking depression as a series of stand-ups, its truth in the unbridled relief as well as sudden lurches backward, that divorce inevitably brings; its realism the way what starts as ‘reasonable’ ends in acrimonious gaslighting then sudden voltes-face. A mingled yarn when someone else has spun you one for years
With dramatist Aron actually present, now Louise Faulkner steps into French’s shoes this 2023 production directed by Jason Moore – with a pacy build though telling pauses – at the OSO Arts Centre, for OnBook Theatre. It’s a space I don’t know: a seriously attractive new-build a short distance from Barnes railway station, with Cote restaurant attached. Faulkner possesses the ideal mix of vocal powers – subtlety and exuberance, confiding wit in an intimate space – and opening up that space in a few brilliant riffs of physical theatre.
It’s a fine space too. With pinpoint lighting and (mostly pop) sound by Jonny Danciger, with minimal set and costume by Ian Nicholas, which includes video projection involving fireworks (November 5th the great break date), Christmas and other seasonal adjustments making use of the tight, clean OSO stage.
Faulkner opens quietly and like Bjork doing a sssh then Wham-Bam in her famous cover song (not included) she flips audience expectations on their collective heads by celebrating the sheer relief as the sound effects clunk the door – a repeat-gag as sassy daughter who’s known for years (and marries a drummer) also exits and husband Max repeatedly drops clangers as the sound clangs with another shut door. Updates include scrolling new smartphones, Facebook (only launched in February 2004) and Meghan Markle’s wedding dress designer (that’s a quiz question).
Aron’s shrewdness is to maximise entertainment with a mix of comic pratfalls that suddenly pull a loose rug as Faulkner inflects the slightest of vocal shifts to casually mention that little moment of seven Prozac with seven health pills – a recurring theme – ditto HRT pills. There’s a doctor she continually sees, who diagnoses her panics at the latest possibilities of skin cancer as LAMB. Layperson’s Access to Medical Books. In fact she continually visits that doctor. He’s continually… ah, patient with Angela.
Angela’s mother is a continual source of entertaining put-downs and no-one gets divorced. “What did you do to him?” she demands, whilst continually undermining her daughter in a charming sequence of appearances. Friends like Sylvie, glib with help, also exclude Angela. As for help, there’s painfully funny encounters with a series of helplines, funnier and funnier as they darken. Their very placement is eloquent enough: Aron knows not to overload. Faulkner’s expression taking each call is expressive too. Like any first-rate actor, Faulkner lets each eyebrow rise and fall: Quizzical, hurt, amused, they all register.
Aron knows how to pattern release and joy with guilt, and beyond that the way the word deals with you. From being excluded by her few remaining friends for the most part for being a dangerous or failed singleton, no longer a comfortable couple-invite, to encounters vicariously with her ex’s new lovers: at least her cleaner’s sister sleuths out the new marital home, or homes, as Max moves from younger to younger. For Angela can fight back. Faulkner’s rubato of inflection from bewilderment to laconic self-knowledge is slight but telling. What she never gives into is the depth of grief, strictly offstage. Aron refuses this: that would pull focus. Perhaps I miss the beat of an ache, a void. Faulkner hints this though.
There’s also ruminative eddies on what Max was like, why Angela loved him, why at one point she rushes over in an emergency. Why, subtly, Angela’s prepared to be hurt again and again, whilst involved with futile non-affairs, with sexually disparaging men making her doubt she’s even fit to look for someone else. And indeed that unexamined life: singleness. Angela never quite considers it. When she does, her world changes, slightly.
The narrative’s punctuated with those anniversaries, stabs of November 5th and Christmas, a useless holiday, a heart monitor, and physically a toy dog the one vestige of her shared life. Faulkner delights in the physical pratfalls – from dog to pills and back to that dog.
The recorded voices Faulkner bounces off should be recorded too. They’re part of the character and texture of this solo play, and invoking them suggests Aron’s variety and pitch. Well-meaning friend Sylvie (Elisabeth-Yorke Bolognini), hopeless one-night stands and sexist lawyer Warren (Gwithian Evans), decent friend Eileen (Elizabeth Graham), Vikram her brief employer (Al-Yasa Ismail), Mother, for whom Angela can do no right (Teresa Jennings), divorcing husband Max, or ‘Roundhead’ (Malcolm Jeffries), Ms Cheung (Candace Leung), witty friend Fintan (Luke Mazzamuto), Jake, whose disastrous Wild Wales camp has consequences (Ian Nicholas), Max’s serial girlfriends Meena/Leena (Anya Zraykat).
The epiphany’s as unexpected as it is right. But it’s a work to be savoured for its exuberant telling of one of the most painful things to hit any of us, through nightmare to laughter to loving oneself, to the hope of love. Highly recommended.