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Bright Half Life by Tanya Barfield at The King’s Head Theatre

The intimate space of the King’s Head theatre provides the ideal arena for Tanya Barfield’s compelling two-hander about a bi-racial lesbian relationship. Vicky (a black woman) and Erica (a white woman) both lesbians engage in an endless back-and-forth battle of wills which over twenty-five years goes from being work colleagues to lovers to separation, old age and ill health. It’s an intimate portrait of a couple up close and personal and so the compact space and closeness of the audience (I was in the front row and had to move my feet back and forth to avoid tripping the actors up) added an extra dimension to the drama. We were right in the midst of it. The proverbial fly on the wall, or flies in the theatre. I could see every raised eyebrow, every intake of breath, the nuance of every gesture. This is an intimate performance in an intimate space with an audience as close as you can get.

Eva Fontaine and Susie McKenna. Bright Half Life. Pamela Raith Photography.
Eva Fontaine and Susie McKenna. Bright Half Life. Pamela Raith Photography.

The play uses the filmic jump cut method. A scene ends abruptly with a blackout and a sound effect followed immediately by a new scene. The scenes are not in chronological order but rather jump back and forth from past to present and back again to the past. This gives the play a compelling narrative drive. As an audience, we are constantly kept on our toes as it were. Oh yes now we are at the beginning of the relationship, a flashback , now we are at the end, a jump forward. This constant jump-cut device cleverly mirrors the back-and-forth dynamic of Vicky and Erica’s relationship. For what emerges from the seemingly everyday encounters between Vicky and Erica is in fact a titanic battle of wills in which now one now the other has the upper hand. What Bright Half Life shows is that power is always an inescapable reality of the human condition. We just can not get outside of it. It is in all human relationships. This is wonderfully dramatised throughout the play. Erica proposes to Vicky. Vicky is not happy about the way Erica has made the proposal. She asks her to rephrase it. Erica objects that you can’t tell me how to propose to you. And so it goes on. The play is saturated with such incidents. Every word, every gesture, every move we make is fraught with misinterpretation, ambiguity and the potential for causing hurt or harm. What makes Bright Half Light important I think is not that this is because Lesbians live in a straight world which discriminates against Lesbians but that these intractable power struggles are just embedded in the human condition. People are difficult, life is difficult.

The play plays out the tragicomic trajectory of this never-ending power struggle with panache, aplomb and nuance. The play never descends into agitprop. It is a work of art. Carefully crafted and superbly written. A central contrast in the play is that between confinement and freedom. Images of confinement include the elevator in Vicky’s apartment block, the double bed, the pod on the Ferris wheel, the ferry and the office where they meet and work. Time and again the realities of this everyday confining world restrict the possibilities that Vicky and Erica crave. The images of freedom are kite flying, sky diving and marriage. The production plays off the polar opposites of confinement and freedom to drive the momentum of the conflict. Every time we think freedom has one victory up pops confinement to take it away. In this sense the play is unresolvable there is no resolution. Uncertainty, doubt and the unknown are indubitable.

The performances from Eva Fontaine as Vicky and Susie McKenna as Erica are both superb. To be on stage for eighty minutes without a break and at that intensity is very demanding. Totally convincing and compelling they allow us to get inside these characters and feel what it might be like to be Vicky and Erica. We learn much about life as we watch these two come to terms with each other. Vicky points out to Erica that she can never know what it’s like to be a black woman. ‘Yes, I can’, Erica replies, ‘it’s like being gay’. ‘No, it’s not’, insists Vicky, ‘you can hide being gay, I am always black’. Vicky has three dimensions of discrimination. Erica has two but also one dimension of privilege. It’s nuances like this that make Bright Half Life such a compelling and fascinating watch. This provides the best exploration of intersectionality that I know of. That is how race, gender, class and sexuality overlap and shape the individual.

The creative team have shown ingenuity and imagination aplenty in their utilisation of every nook and cranny of the space to enact the play as fully as possible. I’ve mentioned the space and the images of confinement and freedom well these are realised ingenuously by a wonderful team. Director Steven Kunis has worked wonders with his lighting, sound and movement co-workers. Maria Koripas has done an outstanding job orchestrating the choreography of this extended pas de deux. The sky diving is imaginatively realised but the highlight for me was the celebratory dance in response to Vicky getting her own office. So true, so funny. The jump cuts and scene changes would not be possible without the spilt second timing of lighting director Alex Lewer and Asaf Zohar composer and sound designer. The tragic-comic nuances owe much to the contributions of Krysianna Papadakis in mixed media and interdisciplinary methods. The costumes of jeans and trainers enable Vicky and Erica to move athletically, balletically and freely around the performance space unencumbered by high heels, skirts and dresses. When Vicky asks ‘does my bum look big in this dress ?’ We can use our imaginations.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

What if life came with a rewind button?

Jumping across time, Bright Half Life tells the four-and-a-half-decade story of Vicky and Erica, who meet, fall in love, start a family, and traverse the highs, lows, joys, and fears that come from sharing your life with someone else.

Author of the ground-breaking Pulitzer Prize-nominated play BLUE DOOR, Tanya Barfield writes a contemporary classic about love, heartbreak, skydiving, and the infinite moments that make up a relationship. Depicting queer love in the richest and most original of ways, Bright Half Life is an intensely romantic and moving play depicting love that is complicated and ever-changing.

Vicky performed by Eva Fontaine
Erica performed by Susie McKenna

Writer Tanya Barfield
Director Steven Kunis
Movement director Maria Koripas
Voice and Accent Coach Amanda Stephens-Lee
Set and costume designer Cara Evans
Lighting designer Alex Lewer
Composer and sound designer Asaf Zohar
Dramaturg Krysianna Pappadakis
Casting director Anne Vosser
Production manager Kit Hinchcliffe

Producer Panorama Productions
General manager Paul Virides for David Adkin Limited
Assistant general manager Bailey Harris-Kelly

Marketing Emma Martin
PR Anna Arthur
Artwork design Steph Pyne

With special thanks to Old Diorama Arts Centre.

Bright Half Life was Commissioned by Center Theater Group, Los Angeles, CA.
Bright Half Life was developed during a residency at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwright Conference in 2014.
Executive Director Preston Whiteway
Artistic Director Wendy C. Goldberg

The New York Premiere of Bright Half Lifewas produced in 2015 by Women’s Project Theater.
Producing Artistic Director Lisa McNulty


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  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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