I love the word quirky. It is one of those words that just sound great whatever the context it is used in. Today I’m using it to describe the latest production to grace the stage at the Old Red Lion Theatre, Islington – Simon Longman’s Sparks.
Somewhere in The Midlands it is raining. For local resident Sarah (Sally Hodgkiss) this is probably not too unusual but there is something very strange about this particular rainy evening for standing on Sarah’s doorstep – soaking wet and holding a goldfish bowl – is her estranged sister Jess (Sophie Steer). The two sisters haven’t seen each other for a very long time – twelve years, eight months, fifteen day, fourteen hours, thirty three minutes and six seconds – and Sarah is obviously shocked to see her sister after all this time. Allowing Jess to come in, Sarah stands and looks at her sister as Jess tries to fill the conversational gap by talking non-stop about almost anything that pops into her head. Slowly and with the help of Jess’s pop-up bar, Sarah starts to thaw towards Jess and the two of them begin to talk revealing things to each other about their time apart. As they grow closer together – sharing secrets once more – it looks like a reconciliation may finally be on the cards. But can the girls get over everything that has gone before and is there one last secret to be shared before they can move on with their respective lives?
This is not the easiest review to write as the last thing I want to do is give even the most subtle glimpse of a spoiler except to say there is a moment when you could literally hear the jaws of a complete audience hitting the floor simultaneously. Unusually Sally and Sophie alternate the roles of Sarah and Jess at different performances. Whilst this is not something you see in the theatre every day, I can sort of understand the reasoning behind it and it would be interesting to see how they play the ‘other role’. Both actresses – playing the parts I saw them in – were spectacular. Pulling off not moving is sometimes very difficult to do but for the first few minutes, Sarah stands staring bemusedly at Jess – while the latter frantically tries to get a conversation going – and does it fantastically. Always in sight and part of the scene, never distracting from Jess, but saying without speaking so much about their relationship. Actually, while on the actors, full credit has to go to the goldfish which even seemed to know when to swim around the bowl and when to sit quiet not distracting anyone with its movement – maybe it’s time there was an award for Best Non-Human in a Play. .
There are surprises aplenty in this well written play and I am really impressed with Simon Longman’s ability to translate his imagination into words. Long passages of text can be very difficult to pull off but the writing flows beautifully here, building some very vivid pictures and stories in the audience’s mind. There are some truly hilarious moments and some quite emotional ones but, given the circumstances, nothing ever seems forced or too unnatural in the interactions between Sarah and Jess
The staging, with Direction by Clive Judd and a very intriguing set by Jemima Robinson help to give the play a quirky – it’s that word again – edge that means the audience can decide for themselves about the story and then be completely wrong-footed by the script and acting – for example, by the use of wine bottles and swans. The final two scenes in particular were truly awesome in the most unexpected ways and you could pretty much hear a pin drop as the story unfolded.
Well there you have it. Sparks is a great little play that with its unexpected twists and turns really did hold me spellbound from start to finish. Leaving the theatre, it was almost as if I had awoken from a dream as I went back over what I seen – with the help of the programme which includes a full script – and really came to appreciate the great storytelling and performance I had been lucky enough to witness.
Review by Terry Eastham
“Remember you saying you could speak to anything if you wanted to. Right? Did you say that? Remember that. Said you could speak to the stars. Just had to know how to do it.”
It’s raining in the Midlands. Again. It won’t stop. Someone’s standing in it. They’re shivering. They’re cold. They’re waiting for someone they haven’t seen in a very long time. They’ve got a rucksack full of alcohol. And a fish.
A brand new play about abandoned responsibilities, what we choose to remember and what we thought we’d forgotten.
SPARKS is an explosive world premier by Simon Longman, winner of the Channel 4 Playwright’s Scheme and recent writer in residence at Pentabus Theatre. His most recent production MILKED gained critical success at Soho Theatre/National Tour.
Clive Judd directs following his acclaimed revival of David Halliwell’s Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs at the Southwark Playhouse and the World Premiere of Rob Hayes’s This Will End Badly at the Edinburgh Festival. Clive previously directed the much celebrated production of Captain Amazing by Alistair McDowall. He has recently worked on projects with the Live Theatre in Newcastle, Pentabus Theatre and the Birmingham REP.
Jess/Sarah – Sally Hodgkiss
Jess/Sarah – Sophie Steer
(Note: Sally Hodgkiss & Sophie Steer will alternate in the roles of Jess & Sarah)
Design – Jemima Robinson
Lighting – Mark Dymock
Sound – Giles Thomas
Costume – Kate Royds
Assistant Director – Emily Collins
Producers – Curran McKay for Folie a Deux and Tom Richards for Bitterblossom
10th November – 5th December 2015
Old Red Lion Theatre
418 St John Street
London, EC1V 4NJ