Review: Cassie and the Lights, Southwark Playhouse

Gorgeously, heartbreakingly beautiful, Cassie and the Lights is a minor-key triumph at Southwark Playhouse

“We like stories
And this is our one”

One December afternoon, a family trip to the bowling alley takes a turn when the mother goes to get some slushies for her daughters and never returns. 16 year old Cassie is experienced in her mum’s unreliability and reassures 10-year-old Tin and 7-year-old Kit that she’s bound to turn up soon but when she doesn’t, Cassie falls into loco parentis. Encouraging her siblings not to say anything, she’s determined to shoulder the burden of her remade family, regardless of the personal cost.

Alex Howarth’s Cassie and the Lights is based on real-life events and interviews with children in care and you can sense that with every nuanced line, every careful interaction between Cassie and her younger sisters over the following year. As she desperately tries to maintain the equilibrium that will allow them to stay together, even once the authorities get involved and the prospect of some or all of them being fostered is raised, there’s never a sliver of doubt about the authenticity of this as it is playing out.

A huge part of that comes from the intelligence of Howarth’s direction. Using contrasting but complementary direct address from the three sisters (all the adult characters are heard solely in voiceover), the perspective is never anyone but theirs, no mediating presence to dilute its hard-hitting power. Scattered suitcases cover the stage, a constant reminder of the impermanence of this family’s situation, also neatly offering opportunities for Rachel Sampley’s video design to augment proceedings.

The production is also anchored by a devastating lead performance from Alex Brain as Cassie, their unflinching intensity a visceral presence as this teenager is forced into a maturity they’re scarcely ready for. Helen Chong’s Tin and Emily McGlynn’s Kit offer no less profound work as the young’uns, frequently amusing in their chat about couscous and artichoke hearts, often deeply sad too as the realisation that their mum might not actually be coming back rips them apart as it would any kid.

Music composed by Imogen and Ellie Mason fills in gaps where words can’t always say enough. Brief moments of audience participation wallop the heart with huge impact particularly once Cassie decides to apply for custody. The play-within-a-play delivers one of the most sincerely heartfelt moments I’ve witnessed in a theatre so far this year. As the Olivier Awards celebrate bigger shows in bigger venues this weekend, Cassie and the Lights shows how to more than match them for emotional power.

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