Once upon a time, in the not too distant land of Loughton, two women lived together as sisters. While twenty-something Tabby climbed the career ladder in-between trips to high street stores, her younger sister, Eve, lived a life characterised by a different type of chain, confined to a single room within her sibling’s mansion – a room which, to her knowledge, was the only safe place in the world.
Superficially, these two sisters form a litany of oppositions. One is dark-haired and the other blonde, one goes out while the other remains trapped, one is an adult while the other is a child, and, notably, one acts as human, the other as a vampire. But while this is the first full length play by Joseph Wilde, the playwright is clearly no amateur and, at the hearts of both of these characters are some pretty touching similarities: significantly, both are damaged by abuse and neglect, and both oscillate between shunning social interaction and desiring intimacy.
There’s still the expectation that, riding in the pent up wake of the last decade’s teen fiction trends, Cuddles really needs to do something new to give us the thrill we crave in vampire stories. In this production ARCH 468 and OvalHouse turn their focus on something that’s far more difficult to discuss than youths with crushes, using Eve’s social ineptitude as a springboard for presenting behavioural difficulties as somehow sub-human.
Cuddles gets its name from the classified signs of love the two sisters agree to give each other, where the higher the number, the more intense the permitted display of affection. It’s uncomfortable seeing a child with such social difficulties used for cheap horror thrills and laughs. Thankfully, in casting Carla Langley, the company has saved themselves from what has the potential to be quite insensitive content. While she may prance around the stage and encapsulate her young playing age with flair, Langley is mature enough to draw something incredibly tender out of her troubled character, simultaneously communicating the dismaying and endearing qualities of Eve. Sneers and exclamations pepper her delivery, bringing a cartoonish aspect to Eve’s speech that is balanced enough to leave exposed the emotional horror at the crux of this character’s behaviour.
Despite this new psychological interpretation of vampiric brutality, those who came to this production expecting blood, gore and stereotype won’t be too disappointed. Young Eve is afraid of garlic and crosses, and – in Langley’s courageous portrayal – she has quite a bite, but Wilde rigorously unpicks the formulae of adolescent fiction, tearing notions and themes out of the books and exposing their dirty horror.
With characters that dip between naturalism and the supernatural, Cuddles embraces its fictionality and lets its blurred boundaries enrich a very unusual coming of age narrative. Thanks in part to Pablo Baz’s lighting design, the polarised worlds of these two characters neatly coexist on stage. While young Eve spins claustrophobic narratives of witches and monsters under flitting, clinical beams, Tabby develops a new relationship in open public spaces. Again, oppositions intermingle, and the breadcrumbs Tabby throws to the ducks become the food that her neglected sibling claws, until the gap between the carefully created exterior self and secretive domestic life becomes alarmingly narrow, and you’re not sure when the older sister’s fantasy and delusion begins or ends.
Amid all this, one thing’s for certain: despite her confinement, the young Eve is no Rapunzel. Her scruffy, cropped blonde hair attracts ugly clumps of dust and fluff, not handsome princes. Supplementing this look, a grubby teddy bear shirt caked in steadily accumulated filth suggests a girl who has been kept in the state of childhood for far too long. With no knights in shining armour to bravely quench feminine desire, this adolescent’s fairytale bulges with misguided sexual frustration.
Clearly one for teasing convention, Wilde engages with the bloody subject of female puberty with a certain Gothic rigour. Here, it is not the process of sexualisation that terrifies; rather, the moment of puberty and the risk that full development may never be accomplished is held as the true source of Radcliffian anxiety. As Eve humps her sister’s leg and rubs her pelvis on the floor in an attempt to channel her newly awoken energies, it is clear that there is no fairytale element to this damsel’s distress.