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Big Big Sky by Tom Wells at Hampstead Theatre | Review

Everything is coming to an end round here: the summer season, the tea-room’s trade, youth itself, the whole country. For this is the tiny village of Kilnsea, set so far out on England’s north-east coast that the great sea-port of Hull is twenty-five miles away and comes over as a remote western presence. The buses don’t get out this far anymore.

Big Big Sky - Jennifer Daley - Credit Robert Day.
Big Big Sky – Jennifer Daley – Credit Robert Day.

The playwright Tom Wells knows just what, or rather where, he is talking about, having grown up in Kilnsea, and his play is awash with the business, and busyness, of lives, four in particular, lived in the illusory emptiness of such a natural outpost.

Dennis, a middle-aged widower, is notionally the authority figure, being the owner of the tea room. He has a daughter, Lauren, who helps him out. With them is the middle-aged Angie, who carries her own deep grief at the loss of a child. In comes young Ed, thrown up like a strange item on the tide. He has the geeky manner of one often labelled as Asbergers by bemused strangers. You could call him a twitcher, except that this would underplay his professional commitment to the preservation of the endangered Little Tern.

On they get, just about, this flung-together quartet, the two older ones carrying their respective losses as though they are physical burdens which affect their postures. Meanwhile Ed and Lauren are so invited by circumstances to get on, indeed off, with each other, that there is no way this will not happen.

What unfolds is a poignant, lyrical study of emotional survival in a harsh climate, with loss forever peering in at the window or inviting itself in to sit at the table like a fifth character. It makes the piece come over not so much as a potential tragedy as the aftermath of ones that have already occurred; expectations of happiness forever tamped down by the sheer doggedness of bereavement. Until, that is, Lauren finds that she is expecting Ed’s baby and the coast brightens with the prospect of a fresh offcomer, void of a past.

There is an albatross; not a mythic or figurative one, but a majestic bird with a massive wingspan that enables it to ride the stormiest of currents. It gets sighted and marvelled at. Wells is careful not to go Ancient Mariner on us, but rather lets the creature be what it is – a prize sighting for an eagle-eyed community glad of a break from the waves of sad introspection.

Under Tessa Walker’s direction, the cast of four inhabit their parts in a way that can give them an almost documentary conviction. Matt Sutton’s Dennis and Jennifer Daley’s Angie seem to circle each with a wariness born of their own earlier injuries. Meanwhile, Sam Newton’s Ed and Jessica Jolley’s Lauren lock into a counterpart dance, with the future imposing its challenging shape on the large horizon. The performances match the caution of the writing, reluctant to open up any easy passages to redemption, restitution and their ilk.

4 stars

Review by Alan Franks

Bit risky though isn’t it? Just sort of turning up to an isolated peninsula in the North Sea without any sandwiches…

BIG BIG SKY LISTINGS INFO
Hampstead Downstairs / Celia Atkin presents
BIG BIG SKY
Playwright Tom Wells
Director Tessa Walker
Designer Bob Bailey
Lighting Designer Jai Morjaria
Sound Designer Laura Howard
Movement Director Val McCann
Associate Designer Roisin Martindale
Assistant Director Morgan Lee
Cast: Jennifer Daley, Jessica Jolleys, Sam Newton, Matt Sutton

Dates: Friday 30 July – Saturday 11 September 2021
Address: Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, London, NW3 3EU
Box Office: 020 7722 9301
hampsteadtheatre.com

Author

  • Alan Franks

    Alan Franks is one of the senior reviewers for LondonTheatre1.com, contributing regularly with reviews for London and regional shows, as well as reporting on press launches. Alan Franks was a Times feature writer for more than thirty years, specialising in the arts and interviewing many leading actors, writers and directors, including Arthur Miller, Peter Hall, Woody Allen, Judi Dench and Stephen Sondheim. He is the author of several plays, including The Mother Tongue starring Prunella Scales, and his latest novel, The Notes of Dr. Newgate, is published by Muswell Press. http://www.alanfranks.com

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