BWW Review: NO PLACE LIKE HOPE, The Old Red Lion Theatre
When Becca (Holly Donovan) is sent to a hospice in order to serve a community punishment, she meets Anna (Clare Corbett), a cancer patient at terminal stage. An unlikely friendship starts between the two women, who at first glance have nothing in common but being confined in the same space. As they share stories, their bond grows.
Callum McGowan's sensitive No Place Like Hope is a heartbreakingly poignant yet genuinely funny piece of theatre bound to open a reflection on life, illness and death, where all elements of the show come together with a devastating result.
Born out of a Kickstarter campaign and in partnership with Victoria's Promise (a charity supporting young women with cancer), the play gives a glimpse into the alienation and loneliness that follows grief. Anna and Becca are suffering from different reasons: the former is slowly dying, the latter fled home because her "parents didn't like [her] anymore". They both isolate themselves from the world, but secretly crave companionship.
They don't pretend to understand each other's issues: Becca never pities Anna for her disease nor tries to tell her it's going to be OK, and Anna never does either. What they do is support each other for who they are in a candid depiction of sorrow and loss.
As directed by Carla Kingham, the show is effortlessly powerful and naturalistic. Emily Britton's set design is effective in its simplicity: the white of the floor and furnishings swallows Anna as well as the other characters, just like their own problems and fears do in their everyday lives.
The performances are honest and vibrant; Corbett's superb and touching interpretation of agony is raging in its candidness. Her strength and obstinacy don't falter even when she is so pain-ridden that she can barely walk, delivering a harrowing portrayal with a powerful and sincere ending.
She is matched by Donovan's depth of character and immense versatility of emotions: from the exuberance expected of a 17-year-old, to the sombre reaction to a tragic life event, she grows in front of the audience thanks to affection and sincerity.
Max Calandrew plays Bri, a healthcare assistant whom Anna doesn't completely like. He knows how desperate the situation is getting and he's fully aware of the obvious outcome, as they all are, but his contribution to their connection is vital for their growth. While at the start he's the outsider they both look out for, ultimately he's there to help Becca rationalise the ending with his experience of working in such a horrific place.
McGowan's script is acerbic but moving, and asks the audience to take a step back and reconsider life and death in a different light. While it's easy to foresee the conclusion of Anna and Becca's friendship, the reflections that the story evokes are varied and unexpected. A curious example is how, according to Becca, Hell wouldn't be all fire and brimstone: by punishing sinners, the devil would actually obey God, and that surely would never happen.
No Place Like Hope is an exploration of human life and sickness as well as chance, hopelessness, and loneliness. Focusing the story on the relationship between two very different women instead of the illness per se, it soft-pedals the lessons in favour of a piece that speaks straight to the heart.