FringeReview UK 2021
Directed by Tinuke Craig, Set Design by Hannah Wolfe, Design Associate Natalie Johnson, Lighting by Elliot Griggs with Sound Design and Composer Beth Duke. Composition by Peter Caulfield, Intimacy Director Yarit Dor.
Casting Consultant for 2021 Production Christopher Worrall CDG Casting Consultant for 2020 Production Anne McNulty CDG, and Casting Co-ordinator Sarah Murray. Production Manager’s Stuart Burgess, Technical Manager Lisa Hood with Stage Manager Luis Henson, DSM Gemma Scott, ASM Olivia Wolfenden, Costume Supervisor Megan Rarity. Production LX Chris McDonnell, Production Photographer Helen Murray.
Till August 7th 2021
‘The lighting is wonderful beyond belief.’ In Bryony Lavery’s Last Easter her key direction – reading like a bit of a review – is also a talking-point in her interview with Guy Jones.
It has to be. There’s a reason then why Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s quietly dignified June needs the spotlight, or the world to go chiaroscuro as she describes Caravaggio’s 1609 The Taking of Christ (‘It’s/the most beautiful thing/I have ever seen./Caravaggio/for Me’), or a field of stars above, or suddenly with the whole balcony lit up like Christmas in Fifth Avenue (close to the 2004 premiere).
Fluidly directed by Tinuke Craig with a knack for how this river of a play should run to, there’s Hannah Wolfe’s simple set to facilitate, with piano, chairs a few props to allow movement and close-ups (Intimacy Director Yarit Dor), to work with Elliot Griggs’ crucial lighting. Sound design and composer Beth Duke works in some Berlin moments. There’s a composition by Peter Caulfield too: with voice and keyboards he’s one of the four actors.
‘I’m doing the Guardian/crossword./Cryptic. I’m quite bright’ June says in one of the few un-staged jokes (wait for those). She has to be. June’s a lighting designer and just told her breast cancer’s spread to her liver. And those line-divisions above and space between words below suggest furious pace, a metastasizing text close to the way cancer ‘has the ability to leave home/and travel somewhere else/Sort of Disease-Package Tourist’. So tour is what we get.
Not alone and it’s not June’s idea. She only knows she’s going to France, not Lourdes. As three of the four Good Cancer Companions laugh through Cote de Rhone and smoke their way across the paysage in a jalopy, the abstinent fourth can only ride bumps. They’re all theatre-folk set out for miracles. It’s worth noting the play’s full of these. Not just where you’d expect.
That was last Easter, and there’s another. Though Lavery’s fluid text runs through without a break there’s a natural pause and this is where five-eighths through there’s an interval.
It’s not June who opens narration (she soon takes over) but female-impersonator Gash – Caulfield has to ramp up camp and he does this blissfully whilst singing and playing the keyboard to deliberately wrong notes to underscore every bad joke he thinks of; doctors’ ones to start, so let’s not. It’s desperate dizzying stuff as Jodie Jacobs’ American Jewish prop-maker Leah goes crazy over frogs and things she can make. If cancer were a wire model, she’d crack it open.
So kidnapping June’s one thing, but they need to split to quarters (this is so Go(o)d Companions) so after a couple of names they both light on lush actor Joy. Ellie Piercy’s character is anything but, deep down in her self-professed shallowness. Once with them Joy vainly plies June with drink She’s introduced and several times highlighted in solo-disco-dancing, twirled down a corkscrew, out of control. Piercy’s excellent at describing sawtooth arcs of drunk arias; her two set-pieces are thrilling. She’s excellent too in crash-outs and hangovers, blinking sear-eyed at her ghost.
She keeps seeing sexy Howie, which is annoying, as her lover committed suicide. In the 2004 production, Howie has a shadowy role, but perhaps wisely from the 2007 UK premiere he’s as invisible as Harvey.
Arriving, the quartet experience the grotto; like a beneficent Marabar Caves effect, it does different. Gash resurrects his old faith for a mo, Joy hits on Leah who’s trying to put her to bed and ends up in it with her, and in love. June sees her life ahead with blinding clarity. The moment when all pray is for theatricals, the pure motley. Gash goes Catholic, Leah’s in Shul, Joy, a nominal Buddhist goes into some rapt Sufi moves which are sort of far-east, right?
Coming down in different light there’s the obvious secondary journey. June asks each friend in turn, so she’s denied three times. But, another miracle, coming together, they decide to act. Cue more bad jokes (Lavery’s copious in her sources including boom-booms from Bob Monkhouse et al, and sober articles on what happens next).
There’s more heart too, though we’re shielded from sheer heartbreak: this drama comically refuses maudlin but plays us to the end. Though characters are different, Lavery bases her four on the experience of a theatre quartet (some names are familiar).
Agyei-Ampadu’s June centres her friends’ whirl like the hub of a whirligig. Every time she speaks there’s a hush down to her vocal level. She almost takes in their energy like a centripetal force and calms it. She can’t dance, as Caulfield’s Gash points out sharply, can’t be this ‘drinking shagging’ thing she was but a ‘stick’; but she’s still a friend, still able to illumine them. Like lighting itself, her agency’s to make all she touches see with her clarity; issue them with a moral imperative.
Agyei-Ampadu radiates this; June decides too when to go dark at any point. She has a request. Here are the switches. So with Caulfield’s renditions of Easter Parade and musicianship centring from the periphery, we get two moral centres.
Jacobs manifests dignity too, truth-teller with lit-eyed frogs and faulty minora (half’s not lit), luminescent Saint Bernadette shared between lighter and prop-maker. Performatively Piercy’s spinning volatility kins with Caulfield’s rendition of Easter Parade where everyone sings. Twice.
It’s why when June has to leave there’s residual energy and wisdom in these characters to make you want to see what happens next. And you do. I wonder about the penultimate scene, what kind of lighting we’ll get. It’s in keeping with June, though it could go another artist’s way.
Caravaggio’s painting wasn’t rediscovered for two centuries till the 1990s in Ireland; the illumination of Christ comes not from the heavens but a lamp held by a self-portrait of Caravaggio. It’s a fine metaphor – not least for those illuminating to be left in the dark whilst lending bright witness. Designer, light thyself. After all the uproar, it’s a quiet blinder.