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Review of No Place Like Hope at The Old Red Lion Theatre

Anna (Claire Corbett) and Becca (Holly Donovan). Photo by Catherine Piper.
Anna (Claire Corbett) and Becca (Holly Donovan). Photo by Catherine Piper.

Anna (Claire Corbett) is a woman in early middle-age, beautiful, successful, articulate – and dying of cancer. She is in a hospice waiting out her time with her books, her morphine and under the care of Healthcare Assistant Brian (Max Calandrew), who she doesn’t much like and who, whilst competent and caring, is rather over-clinical and a bit cold. Unexpectedly a woman, Becca (Holly Donovan) appears in the room wrapped in a heavy outdoor coat with a hood. She gradually reveals herself to be a pretty but bolshie teenager who has been sent to the hospice to do cleaning as part of a Community Order to which she was sentenced for stealing a dog and hitting a policeman. She is a bit gobby and borderline incoherent – working class to Anna’s middle-class. Anna is initially amused by Becca’s gaucheness but quickly comes to feel relaxed in her presence which is a welcome break in the isolation and loneliness which she feels. We are not told Anna’s backstory but sense she has few people close to her – maybe a result of a single-minded pursuit of a professional career. “I never was a sociable person – I was always the host”.

As the story progresses we realise that Becca is not the artless girl she at first seemed to be but kind and eventually very sympathetic. She is bright and funny – there is plenty of opportunity for black humour in this plot and with these characters. “No place like Hope” is the title of one of the many self-help books on Anna’s shelves – books that she treats with disdain. As she does in telling stories of the well-meaning but excruciating visitors who have called on her with messages of hope – “Cancer is a gift” one had said before, one suspects, being rapidly shown the door. Anna and Becca discuss religion and agree that hell would be better than heaven – Anna says that being in the hospice is like being in limbo, a sort of waiting room before the final unavoidable step. They read some poetry (which Becca refers to quite approvingly as “Shit like that”) and gradually a very close and open bond develops between them. “The only person who’s giving me honesty is here because she stole a dog”, says Anna – the implication being that you can’t fake being caring. You either care or you don’t, and Becca does.

Becca has a backstory as well, of course, and that does emerge. She lost a sister to drowning in an event for which she blames herself – and was blamed by her own family. This was a trauma which moulded her short life to date and there is a sense that her friendship with Anna is as helpful to her in coming to terms with this as hers is to Anna. But there is nothing maudlin or sentimental about this play. Both the main characters are a bundle of strengths and weaknesses. Both erect barriers to revelations about themselves – though their swift progress to mutual regard sees many of these barriers fall. But there is no self-pity and few regrets. Though it is clear that Anna feels cheated to have been cut off in the prime of her life she doesn’t moan about it. And Becca’s tough exterior protects her from having to complain – and, as she realises without needing to say so, her situation is far better than that of her new friend. “To be that close to the dark makes you notice life just that bit more”, says Anna about herself but also about Becca.

Brian (“Bri”) is the efficient guardian of reason and science (and the medications) whereas the two women are driven by the emotional side of the brain. This is not primarily a gender thing (though it is in part) but more a deliberate attempt to delineate the importance of the Anna/Becca relationship (spontaneous and rule-breaking – drinking gin and smoking) from the Bri/Anna relationship which is purely professional.

No Place Like Hope”, was designed to pass the “Bechdel Test” which requires that a play has two female characters and that they speak to each other about something other than a man. Well, it certainly does that – and some! The play was also developed in partnership with the charity “Victoria’s Promise” which is dedicated to providing help to young women with cancer many of whom suffer from the sort of isolation that Anna has experienced. So, up to a point, “No Place Like Hope” is a campaigning play – but it is actually much more than that. It is a play of exceptional power full of subtle writing and with believable characters that you care about. The audience gave it loud and long applause on the first night at the “Old Red Lion Theatre” – an intimate environment which gives genuine engagement between cast and audience. It is one of the very best new plays I have seen for a long time and I urge you to go and see it.

5 Star Rating

Review by Paddy Briggs

Anna and Becca aren’t where they’re supposed to be. While serving a community punishment order Becca is sent to a hospice to work and meets Anna, a cancer patient. No Place Like Hope shows the beginning of an unlikely friendship, through their conversations, their need for company and for someone to listen. In their honesty towards each other, maybe solace can be found.

This award-winning play by Callum McGowan, was written to pass the Bechdel test. With women taking leading roles on a London stage, McGowan’s play is brought to The Old Red Lion by an all-female team- co-produced by The So and So Arts Club and Pinpoint Create and in partnership with the incredible charity Victoria’s Promise.

Victoria’s Promise was founded to fill critical gaps in social, emotional and practical care for young women and their families going through cancer.

Tuesday 7th – Saturday 25th November 2017


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