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Sparks – Jack Studio Theatre | Review

In most plays where the characters who haven’t seen each other for some years come together – the reason is immediately obvious: it’s someone’s wedding, or someone’s funeral, or a milestone anniversary or birthday. Here, all becomes clear eventually, but it’s only in the final moments what Jess (Emma Riches) had really intended. Her sudden (re)appearance takes her sister Sarah (Lisa Minichiello) by surprise, and yet Sarah’s relative inarticulacy is just as interesting to observe as Jess’ ability to continue small talk for as long as is necessary.

Sparks at Jack Studio Theatre. Photo credit: Grey Swan / Tim Stubbs Hughes.
Sparks at Jack Studio Theatre. Photo credit: Grey Swan / Tim Stubbs Hughes.

Jess gently coaxes Sarah into conversation through various tactics, including the recollection of childhood memories and a copious amount of alcohol, which for some reason she has brought along with her. Bottle after bottle comes out as she empties her seemingly bottomless backpack. There may or may not be a metaphor about Jess unpacking her problems and burdens onto Sarah, who is so convincingly stunned that one wonders if she will ever snap out of monosyllabic answers. There is little point, of course, in having one very talkative sister provide almost all of the dialogue from beginning to end, and Minichello’s Sarah proves to be as engaging in speech as she is in silence.

Sparks do indeed fly in Sparks, in an intricate and flowing dialogue – Riches’ delivery, however, suggests a considerable amount of planning and thought has gone into what she’s saying. This isn’t someone ‘just’ trying to make up for lost time. Every digression and new topic of conversation has a purpose, even if it doesn’t seem so at face value. Some people hold the belief, rightly or wrongly, that someone’s ‘true’ personality comes forth under the influence of alcohol. There are many factors that affect this, such as alcohol misuse being a probable cause of certain changes in one’s personality in the first place, but that is another conversation for another time. Here, Sarah becomes more loose-lipped after she finally opens the can of beer she’s been clutching in her hands, and Jess’ encouragements to have some more are, in context, justifiable.

Both sisters divulge amusing stories about, amongst other things, working in a fish and chip shop rather shockingly called ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (the owners were not aware of the novel or the film), and an altercation with a swan. Such tales give the impression that they are both being very selective in what they recall, and in going for the light-hearted stuff, some heavier issues are being pushed to the periphery. They’re playing it safe, but this doesn’t, intriguingly, make for dull theatre, but intelligent theatre: these siblings are not yelling at one another, personal insults are not flying through the room, and they are both trying, in their own ways, to understand one another, and indeed themselves.

A gloriously unpredictable final scene is the cherry on top of a very appetising and multilayered cake of a show. I would have liked the setting to be a tad more specific than ‘the Midlands’ – Birmingham, for instance, is not the same as Leicester. The storytelling was so strong in the performances that most of the accompanying background sounds felt superfluous. Perhaps only the sound of persistent rain carried any direct relevance to anything in the dialogue. An unusual and unique play, brought to life in a production that contains hilarity and dramatic tension in equal measure.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Lisa Minichiello – Sarah
Emma Riches – Jess

Julia Stubbs – Director
Hannah Reeves – Composer
Ellie Wintour – Set Design Consultant
Matthew Karmios – Sound and Lighting Design

It’s no surprise that it’s raining in the Midlands. But the familiar woman on the doorstep holding a fish is! Sarah hasn’t seen her sister Jess for twelve years, but now she’s here with a rucksack on her back and an apology.

Over the course of one night, the bonds of family are tested as they attempt to reconnect, share wild stories and search for forgiveness.

Upper Hand Theatre Company presents SPARKS
By Simon Longman
Jack Studio Theatre
2 to 13 July 2024

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