“All of life’s tragedies folded up into those briefest of moments where your face will be an abiding memory”
Critics went cock-a-hoop for Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again at the RSC yesterday but my first experience of her writing came with Many Moons at Theatre503 in 2011 and a fantastic one it was too. Little Light, which forms part of Paul Miller’s reinvigorating opening season at the Orange Tree, was actually the first play she ever wrote and directed here by David Mercatali, receives a startling premiere which confirms Birch’s status as one to watch.
Little Light starts strongly as a disturbed domestic drama. There are strains evident in Teddy and Alison’s relationship from the start, as they prepare for a special meal in their seaside converted barn, tension crackling as the rituals they have always observed end up slightly off-kilter. They’re waiting for her sister Clarissa but she arrives heavily pregnant and followed unexpectedly by her bedraggled lover Simon, a further deviation from which the occasion spirals out of control into a vortex of grief-fuelled chaos.
When the air of ambiguity is wafting around Madeleine Girling’s dust-sheet covered design, which extends even up to the first floor here, the strangeness of the play is a fiercely compelling force. Disjointed, enigmatic speech refuses to settle into any easy rhythm, Max Pappenheim’s soundscape builds an irrefutable creeping sense of horror and as a spiky sibling rivalry comes to a head, taking the unknowing newcomer as a prisoner in its war games, the tension that Mercatali builds is unbearable.
But as it is shattered by the terrible revelations that surely come, there’s a slight sense that this is the work of a writer still coming into her talent. Heavy-handed symbolism leaves as dodgy a taste as that fish pie surely does and the way in which the crucial information comes to light – in two long-winded monologues that wrap up the night – feel too much like naked emotional manipulation, determined to make one cry in its tragedy (and succeeding with a fair few) but effectively disconnecting characters from the world of the play.
Paul Rattray’s Teddy suffers most here, despite his heartfelt conviction, and it is telling that Paul Hickey’s interloper – near-silent at the end – gets one of the more touching emotional moments much earlier in a gorgeous conversational passage about the nature of pain and grief and detachment. Lorna Brown and Yolanda Kettle duel well as the sisters though – both scarred by the past and fuelled by bitterness and guilt to endlessly replay this vicious cycle, leaving us questioning whether the past will ever let go, whether these people can ever move on. A very strong production of a play that just about deserves it.