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FringeReview UK 2019

How Love is Spelt

Brickdust and Project One

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Feminist Theatre, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Southwark Playhouse Little Studio


Low Down

Directed by Charlotte Peters with a simple square of a half-made bed, a chair and shrouded bathroom area, Georgia de Grey’s set exudes minimal shabbiness lit by Rory Beaton with a reveal of an aquarium. Jon McLeod’s sound pumps period rap and adds domestic effects inside a partition behind the sofa. Till September 28th.


Last year Southwark Playhouse scored a niche bullseye in reviving Judy Upton’s 1998 Confidence. Southwark’s flair for attracting classy revivals extend to every period. This seam, say from the late 80s to mid-noughties, is remarkable for naturalistic plays often by women, that got overlooked when more ambitious post-2008 crisis plays arrived. Confidence featured a live hamster, and still triumphed.

Chloe Moss’s 2004 early How Love is Spelt is more proof these plays last, and shouts quietly with just as much penetration on loneliness, (dis)connection, love and its coercive opposite; and struggling from under this oppressive blanket, a life of your own.

It’s Peta’s story: she’s run off from Liverpool to London and five times she negotiates a different person, built on a previous self we’ve just seen, taking a little DNA each time. Then the point of all this bid for freedom arrives in person.

Having won the great Susan Smith Blackburn prize in 2009 for This Wide Night, it’s fascinating to see Moss’s early Bush commission at Southwark’s Little Studio, produced by Brickdust and Project One.

Larner Wallace-Taylor’s intense, hunched, suddenly appealing yet ever-watchful 20-year-old Peta is never offstage. In each scene Peta negotiates a new self, a new job every time we see her in a sofa-bed, in the fifth and last scene returned to sofa status that literally wraps up her bid for an identity that seems anchored to the bed.

Directed by Charlotte Peters with a simple square of a half-made bed (this was a bit after Tracey Emin), a chair and shrouded bathroom area, Georgia de Grey’s set exudes minimal shabbiness lit by Rory Beaton with a single magical reveal of an aquarium after Scene Three. Jon McLeod’s sound pumps period rap and adds shower and other domestic effects inside a partition behind the sofa. There’s a fridge dimly visible to the side. It contains milk.

There’s Benjamin O’Mahoney’s truculent Joe, 32, a hod carrier who talks because he declares he can’t think, though sexually confident. Peta wants to go to the aquarium – a Chekhovian cry we discover – and Joe makes a wrong move. O’Mahoney’s gormless danger doesn’t know boundaries.

He leaves Peta with a cliché ‘glass half-full’ she takes up, and you see Moss’s intricately wrought, additive sense that Peta’s trying to take something from each experience, as if declaring everything before London’s a tabula rasa.

Duncan Moore’s over-articulate Steve, a 30-year-old history teacher with Latin, also talks because despite his equal lack of self-esteem he doesn’t know boundaries either: or how to value Peta’s openness; except jabber and even shy from sex. It’s Moss’s way of showing how two very different men manage the same thing – even if outcomes seem different – that’s deeply funny and sad.

There’s by now a pattern where you know Peta will have a different job when she’s brought back Yana Penrose’s drunk Chantelle, a young woman like Peta, whom Peta sobers up and who’s generous-spirited in return. Penrose makes Chantelle sparkily appealing, as if a whoosh of friendship might flourish in the bestowing of one intended and one unintended gift. But there’s something in Peta that doesn’t want the headlong hedonism Chantelle crashes for.

Nor Michelle Collins’ desperately protective neighbour, 49-year-old Marion when it’s now Peta’s turn to crash drunk down steps. Marion’s own daughter’s an addict ‘turned into a pencil drawing of herself’ coming home only for drug-money. Marion treats Peta like the daughter she’s already lost and Collins’ and Wallace-Taylor’s interactions, the one needily mumsy, the other lapsing into a vaguely good grace of letting her fuss, that’s easily the tenderest scene. Collins etches in cigarette smoke an impressive squiggle of personal tragedy.

Wallace-Taylor’s no slouch in speaking up for herself, but each character seems driven to over-speak her: it’s one of Moss’s distinctions in this play that sees Peta subtly reinvent her job, her circumstances in the flat (that’s one of the more consistent) and who the man in the photo is: dead, or missing father, or lover. And in fact it’s the lover when Nigel Boyle’s 42-year-old Colin arrives to claim his little girl back.

It’s deeply troubling, and Boyle’s portrayal of hurt, anger and menace are met with a gamut of withdrawals and sallies from Wallace-Taylor who remains sovereign throughout with tremulous authority and fragile dashes for freedom.

The play ups gears though into something hulkingly dark and enveloping. Colin cajoles Peta almost to numbed girl responses, with dismissals, the final puzzle-fits of for instance that aquarium. And apart from another revelation, there’s a visionary moment as Peta explains just one epiphany: her visiting a place with a neon affirmation only to find on returning its been reduced to rubble. The final moment has Peta do what she does throughout: drink milk. It’s one of those tropes Moss lets speak for itself.

Peta reminds us it’s 2004, Moss from the start locating the play there with mobiles and only-just obsolete iPods. It never did Chekhov any harm. There’s more to this beautifully-constructed play than intricate themes and slow reveals. Like the best work, its incidental revelations make you wonder what life, rather than Moss will do with her main character. Absolutely recommended.