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Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami at Arcola Theatre

This is not, in my view, a detective story: Miu (Natsumi Kuroda) makes every reasonable effort to get the authorities to do something – anything – about a missing person. But there are no private investigators, and as far as this production would have it at least, none of those have-a-go ‘heroes’ or amateur ‘detectives’ trying to get to the bottom of what happened. I’m not really sure what the show is about, inasmuch as it is about several things, including the challenges faced by Sumire (Millicent Wong) as she tries to become a successful author, and a past traumatic incident that Miu went through while on a Ferris wheel in Switzerland.

Sputnik: Features Millicent Wong, Natsumi Kuroda, Naruto Komatsu - credit Alex Brenner.
Sputnik: Features Millicent Wong, Natsumi Kuroda, Naruto Komatsu – credit Alex Brenner.

Then there’s K (Naruto Komatsu), also the show’s narrator, a primary school teacher, whose own ‘search’ for the missing person involves flying to Greece at the request of Miu, who offers to cover flight and transfer costs, and snooping through the contents of her laptop in the days before GDPR and its international equivalents was a thing. His girlfriend, Mrs Nimura (Yuyu Rau), still married to the unseen Mr Nimura, is – wait for it – the mother of one of his pupils.

Make of that what you will, but that isn’t the only moral and ethical issue at stake. When Nakamura (Sadao Ueda), a security guard, catches the said pupil (also Wong, in a stereotypically sulky pre-teen non-verbal role) shoplifting yet again, the cumulative impact of the repeated thefts is laid bare, in what happens to be a topical issue in the retail sector in Britain at the time of writing. There’s more, such as Miu’s career: unless I missed it, what precisely she does wasn’t made clear. Oddly, she hires Sumire for a job she (that is, Sumire) never applied for.

Perhaps it’s my lack of imagination, but it all seemed to unravel once Sumire talks about entering “the world of dreams”. The possibilities, by definition, become limitless, but in this case, they also become somewhat confusing and mysterious, as if the narrative wasn’t unwieldy enough beforehand. Such, I suppose, is the complexity of human nature, but I wonder if, although this appears to be a very faithful adaptation of a novel of the same name, the production might have done better to stray further away from the original book.

Apart from the scenes in Greece, it is set in Japan, and at various points, different characters bow to one another, but there are few, if any, other references to Japanese life and culture. Western classical music composers are name-dropped, the inter-scene songs include Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, and a literary discussion focuses on the American novelist and poet Jack Kerouac. Even Sumire’s Tokyo suburb is referred to as “like Dalston in the Nineties”.

The technical aspects of the show, mind you, are innovative, if unconventional, with the relatively brisk pace of the show prioritised even over the natural order of things, such that, for instance, Sumire starts a telephone conversation before she has physically lifted the receiver. The set (Shizuka Hariu) is uncluttered, and there is extensive use of moving images displayed on screens to support the story, all perfectly timed. The actors are all sufficiently convincing. Ultimately, though, it was difficult to empathise with any of their characters – there may be loneliness going on, but it was, as far as I could tell, largely self-inflicted. Maybe that’s the takeaway message – don’t bother helping people who won’t help themselves.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Following their partnership on The Lovely Bones, Lavery and Still join forces once again on the story of Sumire, a young Japanese writer who can’t find the words to write, who styles herself on Jack Kerouac and who falls head-over-heels in love with Miu, 17 years her senior. But when Sumire goes missing off the shores of Greece, her best friend, K’s search for her unearths more questions than answers. Sputnik Sweetheart journeys through Tokyo, Italy, Switzerland, Greece, and an intangible space of shifting realities. Murakami’s story is about doing whatever it takes to overcome loneliness and rest in certainty.

Arcola Theatre presents, in partnership with the Japan Foundation
Sputnik Sweetheart
by Haruki Murakami
A new adaptation by Bryony Lavery
Directed by Melly Still

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