A phone sex worker (Kitty) who considers snooker to be her secret vice. A drive-in doughnut restaurant server (Jimmy) who likes to pretend he’s an air traffic controller. How can we not love a play that serves up characters like these? This, indeed, is writer Alan Harris’s forte – creating outlandishly quirky characters who nevertheless feel utterly authentic, and, through them, addressing universally human themes of loss and alienation, love and hope. He did it in the successful ‘Love, Lies and Taxidermy’ and now brings this new offering – a worthy Bruntwood Prize winner – to the Royal Exchange Studio.
The audience sits either side of a long, narrow, empty platform which is suspended from the ceiling by metal ropes. Fly Davis’s design is bold in its simplicity: for seventy minutes we just watch the actors walk up and down, occasionally sitting or crouching. They are supported by some judicious lighting design (by Joshua Pharo), but otherwise the staging is unfussy – it exhibits total confidence in the quality of the writing and focuses on enabling the characters to carry the play.
And rightly so, for there are rich pickings here. Kitty (Alexandria Riley) really cares about ‘people’ but has a mysterious past and can only engage with actual individuals from the safe distance of a phone call or anonymous acts of altruism. Jimmy (Rhodri Meilir) is divorced, has a daughter he never sees, lives with a mother he rarely engages with and relates to people for only minutes at a time through the medium of the doughnut restaurant intercom. They are stranded in ‘glorious’ Newport, both living at one remove from other people and desperate for some human connection – but terrified at the prospect. Then Jimmy loses his job – and starts to disappear. Literally. It starts with his hands, but suddenly he has a sense of urgency: how can he connect with the people he realises he loves before he disappears completely?
It is a captivating story, the pace is just right and the script is witty, poignant and full of humanity. There is much joy in the detail: the little asides and the affectionately disparaging references to Newport town. Occasionally, however, the engaging writing gives way to plot-moving narration and I can’t quite avoid the feeling that we are being handed rather too much on a plate. There are no ‘layers’ here. Very little is left for us to infer – the exposition is so complete. This is particularly true of the treatment of the ‘light’. Ridiculous as this sounds – given that it is the title of the play and its key idea – I find myself wishing that the ‘light’ had not been so clearly explained for us, that we had been trusted/challenged to make the connection and interpret it for ourselves.
But this is a small gripe. The piece is wonderfully entertaining, and Riley and Meilir give terrific performances. They ably convey the pathos and humour of their characters without at any time falling into caricature. Jimmy’s sad goofiness and Kitty’s defensive prickliness are captured perfectly. Further, as the story develops , the two actors multi-role both as narrators and as the characters around them: Kitty’s porcelain-collecting, topiarist landlord Stevo (who’s in love with her); Jimmy’s mother; his ex-army boss; his ‘work coach’ (job centre worker!); and his sulky, stroppy but charmingly vulnerable teenage daughter . This is a considerable array of characters but the shifts between them are managed deftly by both actors. Particularly impressive is Meilir’s ability to transform, in a millisecond, from Welsh (and I mean VERY Welsh) Jimmy to posh RP-speaking Stevo. And it’s not just the accent. His whole body language changes to reflect these two, very different, characters. Similarly, Riley conveys the teenage daughter’s diffidence with great subtlety – through a quick glance or a hunch of the shoulders.
As the play concludes, it’s difficult to spot an audience member without a smile on their face. And that counts for a lot.