Review: SUNNYMEAD COURT, Tristan Bates Theatre

A tale for the current times, Gemma Lawrence's new play has social distancing at its core

By: Sep. 25, 2020

Review: SUNNYMEAD COURT, Tristan Bates Theatre

Review: SUNNYMEAD COURT, Tristan Bates Theatre

When writer Gemma Lawrence was commissioned to write a new piece of "COVID-secure theatre", she created Sunnymead Court as both a template for whatever the new normal proved to be, and to give LGBTQIA+ people a voice from lockdown.

The court in question is an inner-city tower block in which two vastly different women find a connection in a place where human interaction has given way to digital spaces. When one of them, Marie (played by Lawrence) - thin, nervy, introverted - states she dreams of becoming a brain in a jar without the burden of a physical body, we know she will have problems reaching out for real contact. A regular piece of music she plays brings Stella (played by Remmie Milner), a confident and ongoing person who just wants to get sweaty again dancing with her mates.

In this world premiere, directed by James Hillier and presented by Defibrillator in association with The Actors Centre, technology initially looms large. The audience are ushered into the social distanced space to be confronted by themselves reflected on a giant screen as they take their seats. This screen becomes Marie's space to converse with herself, or us, or no one. A pad of coloured lights controls the sounds, light cues, and music we hear throughout.

Stella brings a piece of reality into Marie's isolation from across the tower block, as they start to watch the world wake up together, at a distance, and slowly start to fall into a new kind of love. For Marie, it is glimpses of her "lady in red" that reduce her "to a puddle"; for Stella, it is noting a rather closer attraction. How can their friendship turn into something more at two metres distance or more, with three glimpses a day from across the walkways and balconies?

Lawrence's writing feels real as her "little weirdo" Marie starts to engage back with the world behind her computer screen. In her routines - boiled egg in the morning, coffee at night - she builds a wall of security but when she is forced to break through it to assist in a crisis, there should be a turning point. I felt the play lost a bit of momentum here until the closing scenes with a weak section attempting to find some conflict for the characters.

Better were the colour motifs - red vest, geraniums, blood, pink shorts, blushing - and the movement of the characters with Stella's freeform dancing and Marie's claw-like half-wave. There is one moment which leads us to catch a collective breath: a touch that is unexpected, almost dangerous, as we all sit masked and separated from each other. "I wish I could hug her," one character says about the other at one point, and I can guarantee every audience member could bring someone to mind of whom they thought the same.

There are peripheral characters who come to life from the shadows even though we do not see them. Stella's invalid mother, reliant on a ventilator. Cliff the postman who chatted to one and all in turn pre-lockdown. The shopkeeper who we know watches every interaction in her store with a wry smile. They flash briefly on the periphery, but it is Marie and Stella who are before us, and the sun is going to shine, eventually, for them.

For me, the digital aspects of the performance were as disposable as the technology which drives them. Better were small moments like reflecting on looking directly into another person's eyes for the first time in months. The feeling Stella must have as she ties her silk cravat for work for the first time in months.

I must applaud the work of Chi-San Howard (movement), Will Monks (lighting and video) and Max Pappenheim (sound) who combined to bring this play to life in such a small space, so sparsely furnished. And the venue itself is a shining example of social distancing and safety both outside and inside the venue, with a clear one-way system and lots of room around the seats and between audience and stage.

Sunnymead Court continues at the Tristan Bates Theatre at the Actors Centre until 3 October. As well as performances at the venue there are livestream options available on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

Image credit: Lidia Crisafulli

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