Life is complicated. This much we know – and this new play by Lewis Hetherington, associate artist with theatre company Analogue, captures something of life’s inherent messiness.
Alan is a middle-aged man who’s life is falling apart. He’s just had to place his increasingly unresponsive elderly mother into a care home, and his wife, Carol, is divorcing him taking custody of his only son. As everything crumbles around him, Alan does something radical, striking up a relationship with call-girl called Stella.
The situations into which Hetherington places his characters are unusual. Superficially the set-up has a whiff of Pretty Woman but he’s careful to steer things away from straight-forward rom-com territory. Though ostensibly about one man’s journey, his attempts to find himself, there’s a pleasing lack of predictability to the way events unfold, a twisting of things that makes the play truly compelling.
Stephanie Williams’ set is almost totally monochrome. The floor, walls, and furniture are a vibrant white and the only colour comes from the characters’ clothing and some subtle lighting from Katherine Lowry. This stark backdrop is very effective, allowing the audience to use their own imagination. The cast all give strong performances and Timothy Stubbs Hughes’ direction is effective throughout, but it’s Hetherington’s play you go away remembering: the way it twists reality, the way it plays with the characters and their stories, the freshness of the writing. The plot is engagingly paced and the characters all feel real – they all have their faults and their saving graces; there’s an appealing current of dark humour running through things too.
The play is also successful in challenging its audience’s perceptions and expectations and is full of astute and memorable observations. Katerina Stearman’s description, as Stella, of how it feels to be a call girl is harrowing but not overt and obvious, whilst Alan’s mother’s revelation about the sacrifices she would have made if given the choice is striking and unsettling. Hetherington avoids clichés and resists the urge to tug too strongly on the heartstrings. The results are often touching but never melodramatic. The character of Alan’s mother Joyce is used as a framing device for the narrative. Though physically inert and seldom involved in the action, Hetherington shares with the audience her thoughts; at times the sound of her heartbeat fills the room.
The pacing becomes less measured in the second half, with events speeding up and feeling less a little less satisfying as a result. The ending has an ambiguous quality, which might not sit easily with all members of the audience, and it’s unclear quite what Hetherington wants people to take away from his play. That aside, it’s a confident, compelling and original piece of writing full of vividly drawn characters and it’s this that leaves the most abiding impression.