The Light House

Alys Williams
Leeds Playhouse and Red Ladder Theatre Company
Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse

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Alys Williams in The Light House Credit: Anthony Robling

When a crewmate is lost at sea, as Alys Williams tells us at the outset of this one-woman show, there is a strict protocol to follow. Call “man overboard”. Blow the whistle. Phone the bridge. Point towards the lost soul. And keep pointing. From this simple set of instructions, Williams (debuting as a writer for this piece) weaves a story of love, and of how to care for a loved one who feels cast adrift from life.

Emma Williams’s flexible, evocative set design evokes the nautical metaphor beautifully, aided by Matthew Carnazza’s varied and atmospheric lighting and Ed Heaton’s immersive soundscapes. Williams is immediately engaging, with the majority of the show framed in direct address.

The story that emerges is, we’re led to believe, at least semi-autobiographical, and involves two young drama school graduates, long-term best friends, sliding into a more intimate relationship. This, though, is troubled by Alys’s partner Nathan’s phases of poor mental health and worse—the show deals directly with the experience of trying to support someone experiencing thoughts of suicide and long-term depression.

It’s important, I think, that we find ways to talk about these issues in public, and Williams’s easy-going, playful approach to the story, aided by Andrea Heaton’s direction, helps set the scene and open up the topic.

Audience interaction plays a central role from the outset, and indeed is a key idea of the production: that we are in this room and telling this story together. Mostly, this is very well handled, with audience members invited, rather than ordered, to participate. But at one or two moments, it felt that there was less of an option to refuse. While Williams’s approachable and upbeat manner ensured the participation never felt coercive, it did tend to gloss over any possible reluctance on the part of individuals. This felt a little jarring, given the evident care given to approaching such a challenging topic.

For the most part, Nathan is ‘played’ by an anglepoise lamp, puppeted by Williams. But on one or two occasions, an audience member is asked up onto the stage for a section of business, embodying the character. This too suggested a slight inconsistency of approach, and while comic mileage was wrought from the improvisatory moments of interaction, the piece might have held more emotive punch if we never saw Nathan embodied onstage. A more flexible and responsive object than the lamp might also have enabled greater investment in the character: as it was, the puppetry was quite limited and unclear.

This is, though, an endearing performance from an affable actor and promising writer. Ultimately, the quirkiness of the relationship depicted might seem cloying to some, and your overall impression will probably either be deeply emotional, or find that the show doesn’t quite hit the mark. Your reaction to the use of Glen Hansard’s (of Once fame) music at key moments of emotion—saccharine, or tear-jerking?—will probably mark a dividing line as to how much you will get from the show.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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