BWW Reviews: THE LIGHTS, The Spring, October 9 2011
In an extraordinary space (a disused warehouse, slated for demolition in 2012, sitting between the headquarters of MI6 and a sprawling Vauxhall housing estate) Define Choice are staging the UK's first professional production of Howard Korder's The Lights since The Royal Court's in 1996. With echoes of Scorsese's early films (you keep catching yourself remembering scenes from Mean Streets or speeches from Taxi Driver), The Lights is a dark parable about losing oneself in The City.
Lillian and Rose are in dead-end jobs selling watches in a store in an unnamed city (but everyone is speaking in a Noo Yawk accent, so...) Rose gets her kicks from celebrity spotting at film premieres is on the lookout for anything to relieve the sheer tedium of it all; Lillian, unsure of her place in the city, her relationships and her job, is an out-of-towner who isn't adapting well.
Impulsively, Lillian palms a watch into her bag as a gift to please her boyfriend, who needs the watch less than the money it might bring to feed his developing debt and drug dependency. Wracked with anxiety and worried about losing her job, Lillian is persuaded by Rose to go out on the town - because, well, everyone is at it and they're having a good time.
Drinking cheap wine in a bar, the two young women are sent champagne by ageing, but charming, Diamond and his reluctant associate Ehrenhart. Over 24 hours, the characters' lives swirl around each other in the city, never quite in control, but never quite out of control either.
The Lights is a study of anomie in a metropolis, of the kind of graft of which Upton Sinclair wrote in The Jungle, of the kind of social breakdown that saw riots in English cities just a couple of months ago. It captures some of the thrill of city life, but it's more concerned with fear of the unknown, of the paradox of extreme physical proximity existing alongside extreme psychological isolation, of the lights of the city providing cover for dark deeds.
With a huge space in which to work, it would be easy for the actors to be as lost as the characters they play, but the mainly young cast give uniformly strong performances, with the standouts Frankie Haynes, who captures Lillian's internal conflicts in her sideways glances and stop-start physical contact and Paul Ham, creepily corrupt as superficially seductive city officer Erenhart (pictured above).
The production is perfectly suited to both its venue and this new age of austerity - Hamish MacDougall's direction ensures that every ace in his hand is played over the two hours. As the audience ventured out into the dark streets of South London, they will have looked on its alleyways, its citizens, its shimmering towers in a different light - having now seen The Lights.