Bright Lights City

Laura Genders
Northern Rep Theatre
Salford Arts Theatre

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Bright Lights City
Bright Lights City

The COVID pandemic had a devastating impact upon the workplace; many people found their livelihoods vanished, compelling them to seek alternative employment.

In Bright Lights City, Marchia Brogan plays a middle-aged woman whose career in finance is threatened by a combination of old-school tie office politics and a resentful ex-husband. Her world turned upside down, she retreats to a faded seaside resort, remembered from her childhood, and encounters a teenage waitress (Blu Blackburn) whose name tag misidentifies her as Phyllis and who offers advice which seems wiser than her tender years.

There is an unreal aspect to seaside resorts in the off-season. Venues which ought to be bustling are shuttered and eerily quiet. This off-centre atmosphere is apparent throughout Bright Lights City, although it takes some time for director Tuirenn Hurstfield to establish the whimsical nature of the play. During the opening fifteen minutes or so, the larger-than-life mood means Marchia Brogan seems strident and Blu Blackburn something of a smart-arse.

Laura Genders's script takes the form of conversations on a series of topics which appear unconnected but might have an overall arc of social class consciousness. The café customer studies onomastics (which the waitress mishears as onanism) leading to a discussion on the extent to which a person’s name might determine how they are perceived by other people. The pair debate the different degrees of apology from sincere to meaningless. The general pattern of the discussions is that the customer takes a negative viewpoint, while the waitress is optimistic and open-hearted.

It is hard to avoid a sense of fantasy in the play. The names of the characters are left vague deliberately, which feeds into a good twist but adds to the air of unreality, which continues to the conclusion.

Blu Blackburn’s waitress seems like the sort of character who only appears in fiction, being without ambition and content with her position but able to offer penetrating advice. One half expects her mysterious name will turn out to be ‘Yoda’. She regards waitressing as the ideal job as it allows her to exercise skills learnt watching the TV series Criminal Minds and observe human nature. An orphan raised by ‘gramps’, she is grateful to have been abandoned by a mother who was clearly unsuited for the role and feels she got the best part of the deal.

There is little suspense in the play; it is clear the customer is going to accept the waitress’s outlook that there is not a single rule that applies to everyone. One need not be a thoroughbred horse winning every race but can be content as a donkey offering seaside rides. Fair enough, but from a different viewpoint, this could be interpreted as central government’s advice that unemployed people should be content with menial work and start picking fruit.

The whimsical nature of Bright Lights City might not be to everyone’s taste, but the gentle charm of the play and fine performances eventually win over the audience.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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