BWW Review: LIT, Hightide Festival, Aldeburgh
Just about my favourite film of the year is Lee Chang-dong's Burning and just about my favourite play of the year is Lit, with which it shares more than just the titular similarity (there's a vulnerable woman, an dysfunctional triangular relationship and lost souls in an alienating world in both). Or perhaps I'm just a closet pyromaniac!
Bex is the kind of girl who would have been described in the past as trouble with a capital T - in fact, you can throw in capital R,O,U,B,L and Es too. She's lost her mother in tragic circumstances and bears all the psychological damage that comes with that, and she's discovering the power that her blond hair, baby blue eyes and, well, a couple of other things, gives her over men. She gets to decide for once - or so it seems.
Of course, barely into her teens never mind out of them, she is hardly prepared for the consequences such power brings - including the inevitable paradox that this turn of events merely transforms her powerlessness into a new and dangerous kind of vulnerability.
Sophie Ellerby has pulled off that rarest of feats - written a wholly contemporary, wholly credible play that speaks of and to the generation born into the perils of social media, of instant communication means, if not quite, effect, of sex and drugs and rap and roll. And she's done it with the volume (in every sense) of swearing that "keeps it real" without offending old farts like me who usually consider such language a copout for those unable to write real emotion - soapy stuff this is not!. She's one of two names to watch after this extraordinary debut.
The other is Eve Austin who gives a sensational performance as our anti-heroine, Bex. On stage throughout the 90 minutes (director Stef O'Driscoll has gone for a Brechtian approach with set and costume changes visible and banners introducing scenes), Austin is electrifying. She inhabits Bex completely - bright, vulnerable, funny, cruel, coquettish, frightened, happy, despairing, confident, broken, charismatic, compassionate and human. Most of all, human. If I see a better performance this year, I'll count myself very lucky indeed.
She gets great support too. Josh Barrow (whom I last saw at the National in another play by a very promising young writer, Isabel Hague's If Not Now, When) captures the teen awkwardness of Bex's slightly older boyfriend, Dillon, while Kieran Hardcastle is menacing as his predatory, much older, brother, Lee. Jim Pope is very good too, as the friend's father who pulls back from putting his hand in the fire.
But this play is about the women first and foremost - though it's emphatically not just for women (indeed, with a slight reduction in profanity, it should go to schools and be compulsory viewing for Year 10 and 11 boys).
Tiger Cohen-Towell is super as the nerdy not-needy (but really is - we all are at 15) friend, Ruth, with her proto-goth look and teen fiction obsession. But Maxine Finch almost steals the show as Sylvia, Bex's foster mother, a woman with problems of her own and the honesty to admit them. You always know a performance is strong if it's the things not said that reveal character and Finch delivers that element of acting beautifully.
Ellerby hasn't quite solved theatre on her first attempt - Bex's closing monologue didn't really tell us anything we didn't already know for example - but, 18 years on, this play is at least as good as Simon Stephens' Herons, with which it shares much thematically and in tone. Whether Ellerby will go on to achieve similar success to Stephens remains to be seen, but this is as good a debut as I can recall in ten years as a reviewer.
Photo Craig Sugden