Review: Sunday on the Rocks, Bread and Roses Theatre

Theresa Rebeck’s Sunday on the Rocks may be 30 years old but proves depressingly relevant in this smart production at the Bread and Roses Theatre

“Are you going to start talking about morality?”

Everyone has their own coping mechanism. For some, it’s a few rounds with a punching bag; for others, a few rounds with their credit card on a shopping spree. For Elly, it’s a few rounds of hard liquor, no matter the day, time or place and on this particular Sunday morning, she has little difficulty in persuading two of her three other housemates to join her in knocking back the Scotch and smoking cigarettes as they bemoan the state of their worlds.

Such is the set-up of Theresa Rebeck’s 1994 play Sunday on the Rocks, receiving a well-acted and tautly-drawn production here at Clapham’s Bread and Roses Theatre. They’re all feeling lost in some kind of way, politically, personally, professionally, and as the Scotch runs out and the anal-retentive fourth housemate who rubs them all up the wrong way gets in from church, it turns out that there’s no escaping the sobering truth of their lives today.

From Elly’s questioning whether to have an abortion to Jen’s stalkerish co-worker, from Gayle’s quiet sadness to Jessica’s religious certitude, there’s a maelstrom of powerful emotion at play here as they try to navigate life as young women in the nineties. The men who easily exploit power imbalances in workplaces, the slut-shaming of sexually liberated lifestyles (sometimes even coming from other women), the awareness, even then, of the fragility of access to reproductive health rights, so much threatens to weigh against them.

It’s a canny choice for revival as though it is 30 years old now, so much of its observations about the state of the world are still stingingly relevant today. A scabrously sharp line about Republicans and coat-hangers punches you in the gut whilst making you laugh; in what should be a post-#MeToo climate, women who are victims of male crime still have to battle too hard to be believed. And the rise to quick and hard judgement of others has only worsened in the social media age.

Rachael Bellis’ production understands much of this and so lets the writing largely speak for itself, its continued currency meaning it never feels too static despite the play never leaving this living room (a surfeit of plaid fabric, Nirvana t-shirts and cassette players nod neatly to the 90s setting). Bellis also allows some of Rebeck’s ambiguities to play out effectively – Jen’s previous sexual history with married co-workers, Elly’s flip-flopping on some serious issues, Jessica’s refusal to listen to any criticism of her hapless boyfriend – no-one here is afraid of a little unlikeability.

The strengths of the performances though do mean that it is hard not to get swept up into the dynamics of this group and their banter about hating wicker furniture. Candace Leung is a rock as initial ring-leader Elly, determined to be matter-of-fact about things until things aren’t actually that matter-of-fact as her stoicism crumbles. And Olivia Gibbs-Fairley is phenomenal as Jen, a vibrant presence who lacks just a little streetwiseness when it comes to her decision-making. Bellis as the elusive Gayle and Julie Cheung-Inhin as the uptight Jessica have a little less to work with but remain integral links of the production as extreme ends of the scale of judging others.

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