Friday, 29 May 2015

Theatre review: Sunspots

Family drama mixes with romantic comedy in the latest play Downstairs at Hampstead, and the best show in either of the venue's theatres in some time. In David Lewis' Sunspots Catholic siblings, lapsed to varying degrees, are reunited after their father's death. Clare (Clare Burt) never moved more than a few blocks away from her parents but eldest brother Joe (Robert Hands) has lived in California for the last couple of decades. Having struggled with his sexuality well into his thirties, he finally came out to his mother, but now that Olive (Gwen Taylor) has mild dementia he finds he has to come out to her again on an almost daily basis. Joe keeps muttering about returning to America, but youngest brother Tom (Laurence Mitchell) doesn't have as many options: Having lost the latest in a long line of jobs, he's had to move back in with his mother, settling into the attic room where his amateur astronomer father kept his telescope.

Tom's not using it to watch the skies though when he makes a discovery: Watching a woman sunbathing topless on her roof, he spots what he thinks could be a cancerous mole on her back. Engineering a meeting at the swimming pool so he can tell her about it, Lola (Charlotte Emmerson) soon becomes a part of his life, unaware of how he first saw her.


So you could call Sunspots a textbook romantic comedy, down to the genre's worrying tendency to put creepy, stalkerish behaviour at the heart of the love story - it does turn out there were innocent reasons for Tom first turning his telescope on Lola's house, but it doesn't change the fact he continues to spy on it, constructing a fake persona he thinks she'll like, based on the books on her shelves. But if you can forgive this running theme of rom-coms in general, Lewis' play turns out to be a very strong example of the genre.


Charlotte Gwinner's production is certainly happy to concentrate on the more oafishly charming side of Mitchel's Tom, and there's some lovely moments of awkward comedy as he tries to impress the seemingly bohemian Lola, like his brag of having had sex with two people at once - "Oh, I was counting myself as one of the people." But the family story contributes just as many good moments, as the reunion of the two older siblings opens up long-forgotten tensions. The recurring theme of Joe being their mother's favourite culminates in an unlikely but great gag involving a knife and a banana.


The presence of an urn of ashes together with a running joke about hoovering does telegraph one second-act development somewhat, but what's less predictable is where Lewis takes the plot when quirky romance and family history collide: A rather major obstacle turns up between the couple, with even more convoluted twists needed to solve it and bring about a happy ever after. Sunspots is a classic rom-com with all the pros and cons of the genre, but more of the pros; plus some added moving moments looking at loss of faith, and whether or not something needs to replace it. Don't be surprised if this one returns to the bigger stage Upstairs (with the cast turfed out and replaced with slightly more famous faces.)

Sunspots by David Lewis is booking until the 20th of June at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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