How wonderful that Live Theatre are honouring the life and work of Julia Darling in this latest production of five short plays, all inspired by her writing.
Ten years on from her premature death, Julia’s work is, I think, standing the test of time well. As a prelude to writing about her, I revisited her poetry anthology, Sudden Collapses in Public Places, a collection of poems which had been important to me when I underwent treatment for cancer; I found it as fresh and moving as ever. The truthfulness and invention of her poetry and prose have fired the imagination of five quite diverse playwrights to create Rendezvous as a celebration of her life.
Rendezvous opens with song; the poem Two Lighthouses set to music, which leads into the first of the five plays, The Light by Deborah Bruce. Deborah gently dramatizes the tension between the need for the living to live, but also their need to hold on to loved ones who have died. Using Julia’s metaphor of beams of light, her dialogue is both touching and funny as Jack and Charlie have their first argument as a married couple. I loved their exchanges, but felt that the final section with Sam looking down on the couple and explaining the reason why her torch was no longer shining was cumbersome and unnecessary; for me the audience could have been left to draw its own conclusions.
Currently Under Construction by Laura Lindow follows. It’s a little gem of a play, again written with flawless dialogue, this time between a teenager and a clown. The setting is a hospital, an environment that Julia knew only too well, as does Laura; she doubles as lead Clown Doctor for the company Tin Arts which works with patients in hospital wards. Aaron, beautifully played by Dean Bone, is dreading a visit from relatives and is openly hostile when a clown, apparently on a break from entertaining the children in intensive care, sits beside him on a bench. It takes all the skill of the clown, delicately realised by Phil Corbitt, to allow Aaron, bursting with self-loathing and remorse, to recognise what the visit really means.
The last play before the interval is Words With Love which draws upon Julia’s use of letter writing in her plays to create a contemporary romance in which the letter, rather than text or email, is reinstated as a means of communicating romantically. This is the work of a new writer, and her inexperience shows in the need for some rather repetitive staging in order to make the short scenes work. Nonetheless, there is real dramatic tension and I cared about the boy and girl at the centre of the story and wanted to know how it would end. There is a good twist, which I didn’t see coming!
After the interval I was very moved by Anti-Gravity (by Holly Reed Macrae, a graduate of Live’s Introduction to Playwriting course). This is a moving drama which charts the relationship between a mother and her daughter as mum Martha’s “sly, slow, ugly” illness worsens. Initially fobbed off by the consultant, Martha knows that something is amiss and struggles to maintain normality. Her daughter, Carrie, is gradually transformed into a carer, but despite the desperate nature of their lives, there is huge love, affection and humour as these strong women support each other. I thought this was a sad but beautiful piece of writing.
And lastly, we had Everything is Wondrous, by Amy Golding. This was a dramatisation of the reaction that Jo Milne, a local woman who had been completely deaf all her life, experienced when the cochlear implants that would restore her hearing were switched on. Her friend, Tremayne Crossley, made her a mix tape with a track to represent each year of her life, which was played on Lauren Laverne’s Memory Tapes radio show. This hugely emotional time has been beautifully captured by Amy; the experience for Jo was, indeed, wondrous, but also difficult, as she had no library of sound to draw on to make sense of what she was hearing. So the play is about those hesitant steps towards understanding, and the unintentional humour that derived from the mix tape that Tremayne made for her. It was a splendid finale to a great night at the theatre.
So the five short plays were all linked in some way to Julia, her life and her work, and take on some of the themes she explored in her writing: illness, fear, love, trust, hope and a zest for life. But for this to have been such a satisfying evening at Live Theatre, there needed to be more than that; and there was. The cast of four, Zoe Lambert, Lauren Kellegher, Phil Corbitt and Dean Bone were all excellent, and because they were playing different characters in each play there was a continuity which helped pull the experience together. It also helped, I think, that each play centred on a relationship between two people, be they strangers, friends or lovers, so the structure of each was similar. The transition from one play to another was bridged by a poem set to music, which cleverly linked or set the next scene. There are only two directors, so there is a continuity to the feel of the drama. Then there was the set – fabulous to see the shoe tree from Heaton Park recreated on the stage, and the way the Rendezvous Café was used as well. The resulting sum of the five plays was greater than I had expected.
So please, please, please, don’t miss out on Rendezvous! It was far better than I thought it was going to be, and because of my admiration for Julia Darling’s work, my expectations were pretty high. I thought it was a really satisfying and exhilarating production which deserves to play to packed houses every night of its run.