An alcoholic mother (Christine) narrates her own death and, in her final moments, wants only to know where and how her three grown-up children are. Playwright Simon Stephens grants her this wish, and, in this gentle and understated drama, transports her and the audience briefly into the lives of daughters Jess and Ashe, son Steven, and husband Bernard.
The impact of Christine’s alcoholism is evident in the neediness of the characters we meet. Jess tumbles into bed with every unsuitable man she can find and implores the latest one to stay the night; Steven’s fragile self-esteem is being steadily eroded by a demanding university course and he begs his lover to promise never to leave; Ashe is a single mum hovering on a precipice of exhaustion, poverty and despair, screaming at her junkie ex-boyfriend for £20 child support. Meanwhile, husband Bernard is in the process of acting out a sexual fantasy with two beautiful, younger women (Michaela and Emma). This may all sound pretty bleak but there is a warmth and compassion in Stephens’ writing that lifts the tone from bleak to poignant – and is often very funny. Furthermore, there is hope here, as the emotional connection of family – tragically restored by Christine’s death – seems ultimately to offer some respite and a reminder of something which is grounding for all of them.
The form of the play emphasises the fact that these separate lives are happening in parallel on one fateful afternoon. The stories are interwoven, and with Sarah Frankcom’s skilful direction, the action moves seamlessly between them. Sometimes the characters occupy different parts of the stage – reflecting their different geographical locations – while at other times they cut across and even seem to show fleeting awareness of each other. Christine is a haunting presence throughout, silently observing her family or intervening in the form of a waitress or confused tourist.
Rebecca Manley’s performance as Christine is both restrained and expressive – full of subtlety and tenderness. As she watches her adulterous husband in the hotel room, her face is etched with disappointment and sadness. And when the gauche, over-eager Bernard (played very authentically by Lloyd Hutchinson) caresses Emma’s hair, she can’t bear to look and silently turns her back.
Katie West gives an excoriating performance as Ashe. At the heart of the piece, she perfectly conveys both the fragility and strength of a young mother with no resources left – physical, emotional or financial – but a desperate determination to provide for her child. She is utterly believable, and utterly heart-breaking.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for her siblings and their partners, who seem decidedly two-dimensional in comparison, with unconvincing relationships and often cliched dialogue. Perhaps it comes down to time constraints, or an over-ambitious play structure, but we are given no more than rough sketches of these characters and much of what we do learn is provided through exposition. The upshot is that it is hard to relate to or invest in them, and the play is effectively carried by Christine, Bernard and Ashe.
Light Falls is the fourth collaboration between Simon Stephens and Sarah Frankcom, and the level of understanding between writer and director is evident. Indeed, the staging of this production is both sensitive and beautiful. Naomi Dawson’s stark set – with a simple wooden floor and bleachers – enables Frankcom to create perfect set-piece pictures with characters placed on different levels; there are moments when the couples on the bleachers look almost suspended in time and space as a backdrop to the action on the main floor. Also, a constantly shifting balance between the stories is achieved simply by the movement of chairs or by characters drifting up and down the steps. The only problem with this is that the audience experience is over-dependent on seat location. Having seen the play twice, it was only on the second occasion – when I sat ‘front on’, facing the bleachers – that I got the full impact of the staging, appreciating both its visual beauty and the way the space has been used so effectively in the story-telling. In this respect, it is a puzzling outgoing production for Frankcom as artistic director of the Royal Exchange – to produce a play in many ways unsuited to its distinctive round space.
The marketing of Light Falls focuses very much on its status as a ‘northern play’. It was born out of Stephens’ reflections and research into his own northern heritage, and Jarvis Cocker provides a ‘Hymn to the North’ which is sung hauntingly by the cast at various key moments. For me, however, the power of the play lies in its exploration of universal themes; our need for emotional connection, the potency of family ties (however imperfect and even destructive at times) and the importance of kindness as we navigate our way through a harsh and cynical world. In the complex and duplicitous current climate, it is wonderfully refreshing to hear the simple advice of one of the characters:
“Thank bus drivers. Make sure you do that and everything else will kind of fall into place.”
Photo: Manuel Harlan