Thursday, 19 August 2021

Theatre review: Big Big Sky

The studio venue with the most disproportionate set design budget in London recreates a real place from Tom Wells' past, as Hampstead Downstairs plays host to Big Big Sky, and designer Bob Bailey takes us into a café where the playwright used to work. In the village of Kilnsea where Wells grew up, the café is at a particularly remote point, because it serves the hordes of birdwatchers who arrive every spring and summer, hoping to catch sight of some of the rare sea birds that flock to the coast. Angie (Jennifer Daley) only gets customers between April and October so she closes the café every winter, and will soon close it for good - the play essentially tracks her last year running the place, as a new bird observatory nearby will put her out of business. She's helped out by local teenager Lauren (Jessica Jolleys,) and most days Lauren's widowed father Dennis (Matt Sutton) pops in just after closing, hoping to get a free Cornish pasty from the leftovers, and maybe a chat with Angie.

Starting in October as the café prepares to close for winter, Lauren has just moved out of the family home, and faced with an empty house Dennis has put her room up on Airbnb, expecting it to go out to the odd birdwatcher in the summer months. So he's surprised when it's immediately snapped up by Ed (Sam Newton,) a budding conservationist applying for a job looking after tern nests.

When we skip ahead to the Spring reopening, a lot has developed - not only are Lauren and Ed now a couple, but they're expecting a baby, and trying to work out the best way to break it to her dad. It's not just the prospect of becoming a grandfather at 45 that might send him off the rails, but his mental state ever since his wife died: Big Big Sky is full of grief - Dennis has lost his wife, Lauren and Ed their mothers, Angie her daughter - but while it haunts them all, Dennis is the one whose depression has become all-consuming, and in many ways the central theme of the play is the way depression affects not just the person suffering, but those around them as well.

It means that despite the bright surroundings this feels like one of Wells' darker plays, although there's still a reliably steady supply of very funny lines (the small, dispersed audience as Hampstead is still keeping some element of social distancing is probably also contributing some of the melancholy atmosphere.) There are larger themes hinted at but the character work from writer and performers is still the key: All of the characters to some extent or other focus their wider fears and anxieties into more manageable actions, most obviously Ed looking after the tern nests because it's something he can do, while the larger, scarier ecological concerns are, as he regularly reminds us, safer in Greta's hands.

And while some of the characters may at times seem to have given up hope, Wells doesn't let the audience do the same. Dennis' attempts to find something to do with his life now he's on his own (taking up birdwatching despite a lifetime of disinterest, signing up for a wildlife photography competition) always seem to backfire in some way, but they're a sign that he does at least still try to keep going. And by the end of the play it definitely feels as if the café might be closing, but the places the characters are now moving onto might finally be the ones where they can have a proper new start. (Also, while you'd never call Wells a writer who experiments a lot with form and structure, I feel like there's something very quietly subversive about having a "will-they-won't-they" relationship that not only ends in a "they won't," but is barely even treated as worth exploring: The closest acknowledgement is Dennis suddenly losing all animosity towards his unseen nemesis Neil, when Angie points out that Neil is gay and therefore has no designs on her.)

Director Tessa Walker has a few of Wells' plays under her belt, and you can tell in the confidently light touch she brings to the characters, teasing out both their sadness and the very funny side that's always there to be found. And finally, speaking of regular Tom Wells collaborators, Matt Sutton has been in enough of the playwright's work before to raise the possibility that he at least had him at the back of his mind for the role when writing it. Which raises the question of why he's written him a part that involves speed-eating several Cornish pasties eight times a week, and I must admit I was distracted by the possibilities. Did Sutton lose a bet? Or, depending on how much he likes pasties, did he win a bet? Did he wish he could eat pasties every day, and a finger curled on the monkey's paw? Or did he like pasties a bit too much and this is some kind of intervention, like catching a kid smoking and making them smoke the whole packet? I'm going to go with the option that Sutton's being Clockwork Oranged, and by the time the play closes in a few weeks' time he'll get a nervous twitch whenever anyone so much as mentions Cornwall.

Big Big Sky by Tom Wells is booking until the 11th of September at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs (returns only.)

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Robert Day.

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