“When I put Neil Diamond on, people leave the shop”
The Turkish invasion of Cyprus may seem like an unlikely backdrop for a love story but in James Phillips’ self-directed Hidden in the Sand, it serves well as the catalyst for an emotional personal odyssey that stretches across Europe and over decades. Alexandra Chrysostomou’s happy life in the northern Cypriot port of Famagusta was ripped from her when the Turks invaded – there was barely time to collect a few precious belongings before fleeing with her sister Eleni, at a stroke reduced to the level of refugee. Eventually constructing a new life for herself in London, running a shop and subsisting on the memories of love and home, the prospect of a new relationship forces her to confront some of the more painful aspects of the past.
Sally Dexter’s Alexandra and Scott Handy as new beau Jonathan trace the nervous steps of a new relationship beautifully. As more mature souls, already bruised by life, their hesitant flirtation and subsequent opening up to one another is sensitively, superbly drawn. Her tempestuous Mediterranean spirit is almost too large for life, his linen-clad quietness the perfect foil to her broccoli-cooking ways, but she can’t escape the shadows of the version of the past that she has erected for herself, to protect herself, to delude herself into thinking the way things were was the way she wanted them to be. On her own she might get away with it, but the presence of her photo-journalist niece and indeed Jonathan means that reality can’t be escaped.
The way in which Phillips unwinds the story is well done, constantly challenging what we believe to be fact and there’s an interesting sub-plot involving Daphne Alexander’s war photographer Sophia, questioning the nature and the artifice of photo-journalism. And I genuinely found the play fascinating when talking about what happened in Cyprus, something so rarely spoken of these days, the conflict too easily consigned to history even as hundreds of men remain unaccounted for, the fate of one of those proving particularly pertinent here, especially with the arrival of estranged sister Eleni, a far-too-brief cameo from the excellent Yolanda Vazquez.
The only criticism for me came with elements of Phillips’ direction which doesn’t always take into account the awkwardnesses of the Trafalgar Studios 2. Its intimacy precludes too detailed a set design that isn’t fully realised and so facsimiles of fridges and record players end up looking naff. And keeping his actors way downstage on a sofa for a static early scene is just frustrating for those not on the front row. But his evocative use of photography is elegant and if ultimately his play says little that is really new, it says it well.