BWW Review: HOW LOVE IS SPELT, Southwark Playhouse
So many of us flock to London in search of life, love and adventure, and these are the motivations of Peta (Larner Wallace-Taylor), who is new in town and ready for whatever the big smoke has to throw at her - or is she? Set in 2004, How Love Is Spelt also premiered in the same year at the Bush Theatre, with this marking its first major revival.
Georgia De Grey's set is a believable bedsit, complete with stained carpets and one of those uninviting old sofa beds you only seem to find in such places. The intimacy of 'The Little' at Southwark Playhouse of course invites us into this small space and the dishevelled world of our protagonist. Through Charlotte Peters' assured and sensitive direction, we are taken on a conveyor belt of emotions.
The story is told through five episodes, with Peta being the constant throughout. Whilst there is the potential for this sort of structure to feel a little disjointed, Wallace-Taylor delivers a remarkably meticulous and fully-rounded performance that manages to glue it all together. With just a flicker on the face or a subtle mannerism, the thoughts and feelings of this lost and vulnerable character are so clearly conveyed. Telling lies and drifting into fantasy makes her an unreliable protagonist, yet all the more intriguing for it.
London is a vibrant and thriving city that promises much and never ceases to be interesting, but as crowded as it is, it can also be a very lonely place and this is the predominant theme throughout the play. It's interesting to note the cultural changes that have occurred since 2004, with social media being far more prevalent today. Constantly seeing people at their best and always having fun (at least on the surface, anyway) can only exacerbate the loneliness and vulnerabilities young people might feel, and there is often pressure to take on a persona you think might please or impress.
The play's revival therefore seems somewhat timely. People have always adopted masks to some degree, and it's engaging to see the masks of each character slipping somewhat as feelings are shared and truths delivered - although not necessarily understood or acknowledged by the recipients.
Although an emotive drama with some beautifully poignant dialogue from writer Chloe Moss, we are also granted a number of humorous moments, especially in the opening two sequences.
We begin with Benjamin O'Mahony's Joe - a cockney lad who thinks waking up next to a girl is akin to a relationship. Going off on tangents and often digging himself into a hole, he is cringe-worthy and endearing in equal measure. O'Mahony's onstage chemistry with Wallace-Taylor works well, especially when the mood abruptly alters and the laughter dissipates.
Our protagonist's unreliability is exemplified in the second sequence. Meeting a nervous and socially awkward teacher, played beautifully by Duncan Moore, Peta repeats certain dialogue from the previous scene but also lies and contradicts herself.
Through his facial expression and physicality, Moore captures his character's bumbling unease brilliantly. When he reveals his struggles with confidence, which he deems unmanly, it serves as an effective contrast to the seemingly self-assured Joe in the previous scene. The subject of men discussing their feelings is dealt with here in a very credible way that's refreshing to see.
Yana Penrose also generates some laughter as the hungover Chantelle, who crashes at Peta's after a night out. Whilst it was interesting to see Peta interacting with a female character for the first time, as she tries to reinvent herself once again, you could argue that little was added through this sequence and at the very least it could have been condensed somewhat.
Michelle Collins delivers a truly multifaceted depiction of the motherly neighbour next door, Marion. Eager to help and look after Peta, she is in fact herself desperate for distraction and respite from her own loneliness. Collins manages to morph from nosiness to neediness and from genuine concern to being vulnerable and self-reflective almost effortlessly. It's an impressive performance that makes for one of the more engaging segments.
Nigel Boyle as Colin arrives in the closing chapter to take Peta back home to Liverpool. Being the only character in the play who knows Peta from before her move to London allows the actors to enjoy some of the more fiery moments of the play and again the onstage chemistry between the two is tantalising and plausible. This is testament to the director and her cast, considering how relatively little stage time is shared between Peta and those she encounters.
The play is well written and deserving of its revival with strong performances by all. It does feel slightly too long, however, with certain points being meandered around. There are moments where an injection of energy wouldn't go amiss, and the interval also seems to get in the way somewhat. Perhaps without one, we might be carried along at a more consistent pace. We are also left with a lot of questions, and whilst this is often a good thing in theatre, here we feel like we are owed at least some of the answers. But then again, that's not always how life works, is it?
Photo credit: Ali Wright