Loose Tongue and HighTide in association with Bush Theatre
The Studio, York Theatre Royal
There’s a rather wrongfooting blurb for the tour of Eve Leigh’s new play, which originated at the Bush. It’s certainly a “meditation on ageing and grief”, but to say it contains “magic tricks to charm audiences throughout” is a piece of spectacular misdirection of its own.
The concept of sleight-of-hand and semi-psychological trickery is set up early in the piece, as is the pseudo-magic show concept, with a goldfish hooked from a bowl by Lachele Carl, left lifeless on the table for a while, then returned, miraculously still swimming, to its habitat. However, though Carl gives us the gestures and glitter of a magician at work, there’s no real prestidigitation here.
Moreover, it’s the only actual attempt at a trick, in a show which employs magical metaphors and imagery at times, without this really cohering into a satisfying whole. The show is presented in a versatile setting which looks like a cross between a run-down end-of-the-pier show and a cosy living room. Jemima Robinson’s set design and Amy Mae’s lighting combine to provide atmospheric shifts and a couple of set-piece moments, but not that much magic.
This all risks sounding like I was disappointed not to be watching “real” illusions. Rather, the problem for me was the way that the piece doesn’t quite pay out on its own concepts. The staging seems to be pulling in a direction which the text resists: the sometimes-stylised choices of the actors (and direction from the acclaimed Roy Alexander Weise) were for me at odds with dialogue which seemed to call for more direct emotional connection.
Lachele Carl, as Mira, is a case in point. In sections of direct address, she is compelling and makes a strong connection with the audience. In dialogue with other characters, though, in which Mira falters, interrupts herself and doubles back on her thoughts, Carl’s delivery is oddly mannered and I found myself having to reverse-engineer what I was hearing, to imagine it back to the page, in order to make sense of the character’s intentions.
Carl does have the lion’s share to do, though the whole cast works well together. The multi-roling Ani Nelson and Sharlene Whyte tend to work as a double act, and both give great performances—though the latter is consigned to sitting aside from the action and watching in several scenes. Whyte has a splendid section as a medium consulted (and confronted) by Mira. Although this could end up a purely comic stereotype, we instead get the sense that there is belief and real compassion behind the medium’s work, in a piece of writing which is an indicator of Leigh’s talent.
David Verrey looks and sounds the part as Mira’s husband Jonah, a (now-deceased) magician who speaks with her from beyond the veil. There are touching moments between the pair, and it’s through this relationship that the central drama and ideas of the play are pursued.
But this device was, to me, rather hackneyed, and jarred with sections of writing which veered away from the dramatic set-up and towards live art territory: all four performers listing possible funeral arrangements, or trying repeatedly to pinpoint the moment they first glimpsed the notion of their own mortality.
So the show has a jittery, undecided dramaturgy at its heart that didn’t for me suit the subject matter, nor the assurance of the piece’s fascinating and knotty central proposition: that life is a daily sleight-of-hand in which we misdirect our own attention from mortality. This sideways thinking, and the dialogue’s various moments of deeply satisfying twists, were enough to convince me that Eve Leigh is a theatremaker to watch, despite the unevenness of this particular work.