Thursday 16 February 2023

Theatre review: Graceland

Upstairs at the Royal Court, Ava Wong Davies' Graceland offers up a monologue about a relationship that slowly, almost imperceptibly turns abusive; perhaps too slowly and imperceptibly to fully bring the story to life. Sabrina Wu plays Nina (although neither her name nor that of her boyfriend are mentioned until very late in the play,) who addresses her speech to the man she met at a barbecue at her friends' house, and had an instant spark with: She doesn't believe in love at first sight, but can't think of a better way of describing it. She's the daughter of Chinese immigrants who doesn't want to take over their restaurant, and has ended up in an office job with a handsy boss and no real career ambitions. He's a poet, which needless to say means he's actually a trust fund baby who doesn't need a day job to pay the bills.

This disparity between them in class and income isn't explicitly brought up as an obstacle much, but it does form a constant undertone to their relationship, with his ability to jump in with loans and gifts of cash if she's in a fix affecting the balance of power. His inconsistent, unpredictable way of sometimes demanding she repay him for things like coffee and sometimes ignoring much larger amounts leaves her unsettled.

There's also a physical element to his abuse of her, but there's question marks over this as well - Nina describes a relationship with a tendency to turn violent on both sides, and the way she tells it she's hit him harder than he ever hit her. I like the concept of an unreliable narrator who knows she's unreliable and admits to it: Whether he's gaslit her or she's gaslit herself, she knows her memories of the relationship are highly subjective, like when she tells us she knows what word the audience is thinking of when she mentions one thing he did to her, but that she can't see it that way. On the other hand this does mean the play leaves you hanging, with nothing ever coming into satisfying focus.

Wu is never less than watchable and almost hypnotic, but I wished Anna Himali Howard and Izzy Rabey's production had found a bit more tonal variety - there's a flat, ominous quality to the delivery right from the start, so we never really get a sense of the joy at the start of the relationship before it turns sour. Mydd Pharo's design isn't that helpful either - traverse is an odd choice for a monologue as the performer has to have her back to half the audience at any given time. Wu manages to bring a lot of variety to her attempts to keep both sides included, whether stalking around the set or delivering lines over her shoulder, but it does bring a further disconnect to a story that's already deliberately murky. And while the single bed that forms the centrepiece turning into a freshly-dug grave is a powerful image, the piles of soil surrounding it feel a bit generic, and their significance to the story as unclear as the play's title.

There are interesting ideas here - Nina and Gabriel only being given names once the relationship's over and she's stopped addressing the speech directly to him is a nice indicator that she's finally able to step outside and view the events a bit more dispassionately. But the whole thing never quite comes to life, and eventually fizzles out.

Graceland by Ava Wong Davies is booking until the 11th of March at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Ali Wright.

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