Waiting for Romeo
Pleasance Theatre, Islington
Already seen on the Edinburgh Fringe last year, this black comedy is set in a flat in the middle of a battle ground. With explosions going off as the audience take their places, rocket attacks and snipers in the streets, this has a horrid topicality that echoes Gaza, the Balkans and terrorist attacks in Iraq - a bomb has just blown up a line of women queuing for bread. But, although it uses the outside conflict to generate its action, this is not essentially a play about war. At its heart is the relationship between two sisters with the sort of sibling conflict that will have uncomfortable resonances for almost everyone who is not an only child.
Talya is the younger sister who has confined herself in the old family apartment, relying upon Raneen, the older sister who, when Talya was only ten, promised their dying mother that she would always look after her. Little Talya used wait for a Prince on a white horse to snatch her up and, now grown-up, she is still waiting. She refuses to leave the flat in case he arrives while she is out. This leaves pregnant Raneen, who lives across the city, struggling across a sniper-dominated no-man's-land to bring her food and water.
The stark situation is emphasized by Polly Webb-Wilson's set made up of largely empty shelves, empty that is except for bottled water and stacks of unlit candles, one of which Talya symbolically lights in an almost religious morning ceremony before a composite picture of some ideal Mr Right, or perhaps a real one. There seems to have been someone eighteen-months ago she expects to come back. Dabbing her face with bottled water by way of a wash and touching up her makeup, she keeps herself presentable for her prince, oblivious to what is really going on outside. Costume designer Giulia Scrimieri has given her a tatty sort of evening dress with a lopsided trailing skirt that matches her fantasy, a fantasy maintained despite the fact that she is sleeping on the floor on a piece of plastic foam, bemused by the library of handbooks on how to attract and please a man which seem to occupy her life. Lucinda Holloway makes her suitably petulant, her pretty face contorting into ugliness when she turns on her devoted sister.
With her baby imminent, Raneen is torn between an exhausted tolerance and a sense of duty as Talya makes increasing demands and taunts her with her unattractiveness - she has a facial birthmark. Beatrice Curnew plays her solidly down to earth, a strong woman and a strong performance: that birth-mark would certainly not have put me off! But she has developed a fantasy of her own to justify her present condition. What happens then when a man appears who can use both women's fantasies to his own advantage? Or is what some of he says the truth? A nicely ambiguous performance by Tim Crowther leaves that open.
Neither script nor Nina Brazier's direction attempt to rationalize what they present to us. Why, for instance, is Talya sleeping on the floor when there are several serviceable bedrooms in the apartment? What actually is going on outside where markets are still held under sniper fire and rocket attack? That is now what they are concerned with, but how far we can delude ourselves to make life bearable? This is a battle ground where the participants are selfishness, selflessness and self-interest. How nice we can be for our own advantage, how ghastly to avoid admitting our own inadequacies, while also raising a question about whether we can accept responsibility for our own actions.
Running only about 70 minutes, it successfully holds the attention with its constant shifts of balance with some violent reverses leading up to its somewhat contrived ending. For a full evening's entertainment it would need to have dug deeper but it leaves that to the audience to do. This is a stimulus to thinking rather than a polemic.
Runs until 1st February 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton