Review: Scarlett, Hampstead Downstairs

“Don’t you want to come home?”

Colette Kane’s I Know How I Feel About Eve played at the Hampstead Downstairs space in 2013 and she now returns there with Scarlett, another of her plays destined to only be reviewed by the odd blogger due to the no press policy there. I’d be interested to see if it will be open to the critical community when it moves to co-producing partner Theatre Clwyd next month as the rationale behind excluding press – to create “a unique experience” – has always felt slightly odd.

Be that as it may, Scarlett offers a sadly all-too-rare opportunity at the Hampstead to see a play that is written, directed and exclusively stars women, something they should be happy to be publicising. We first meet its London-based title character on a weekend away to Wales which has extended into something longer, exactly how long is unsure but she’s been looking at properties in the local estate agent and has found a dilapidated chapel and is ready to buy.

Kane shows us Scarlett in search of a new life, painstakingly working her way into the affections of the sceptical owner Eira and her far more amiable grand-daughter Billy, but soon throws in a twist as Scarlett’s mother and daughter turn up unannounced, ready to take her home. What follows is an examination of the different ways people react when they feel suffocated, whether by overbearing family members or all-encompassing grief.

Mel Hillyard’s production is a bit of a slow-burner, taking its time to put its pieces into place and even then, Kane’s writing tends towards the enigmatic as she toys the notion of whether Scarlett is experiencing some kind of spiritual awakening or if it is her sanity that has been stretched beyond breaking point. Kate Ashfield as Scarlett and Joanna Bacon as her outspoken mother explore this dynamic well with in their complex relationship, with Lynn Hunter’s butcher-loving Eira a fascinating counterpoint.

But the play’s key scene, for me, comes with a gorgeously written moment between the two youngsters. Gaby French’s impossibly-wise-for-a-14-year-old Billy and Bethan Cullinane’s university-age Lydia have nothing overtly in common but through the course of a gently probing conversation, begin to open up to each other awkwardly and yet so deeply honest. It is perfectly played by the pair and speaks to a real emotional truth about the stories we tell ourselves, and others, to deal with internal pain.

Polly Sullivan’s Welsh countryside design is attractive but perhaps a little too literal and it could afford to play with the space a little more experimentally. Its current configuration means Hillyard’s direction does tend a little towards the end-on when in fact the theatre is in shallow thrust, from the side I saw a lot of backs, but the run is still in its early days yet. An interesting play.

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Photo: Robert Day

Booking until 25th March

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