What brings Josh and Kelly together is the profound love they share for a girl they both consider their daughter. Up until now, Josh and Kelly have never met.
Their bitter-sweet and anticipated encounter sits at the centre of Daf James’s thoughtful but scattered new play, On the Other Hand, We’re Happy, produced by Paines Plough and Theatr Clywd. It acts as a linchpin: Josh (Toyin Omari-Kinch) is a middle-class widower adopting Kelly’s daughter, Tyler (both played by Charlotte O’Leary), and they are meeting under the supervision of their social workers. James’s writing is here tranquil and tender-hearted while masking deep undercurrents of love and grief. O’Leary paces furiously around the stage, ballsy and tense and curious and heart-broken and frightened. She’s unsettlingly compelling as Kelly, a young single mother struggling with addiction, and is contrasted by Omari-Kinch’s Josh, who is stoic and gentle. Even with a rather hokey device whereby an audience member plays Kelly’s social worker, in this pivotal moment, On the Other Hand, We’re Happy resonates fully.
But as James’s drama expands from its core, it loses its potency in places. Attempting to cover a lot of ground, perhaps too much, it begins with a series of rushed snapshots between Josh and his girlfriend Abbie (Charlotte Bate) as they buy a house, take MDMA, go dancing, get married, try to have kids, and then decide on adoption.
Director Stef O’Driscoll has a heavy directorial hand, punctuating James’s text with stylized movement and an enduring, intense mood that is at times complementary but often jarring. Between each scene, the actors lean forward until their weight plunges them into the next scene; they deliver conversations with such emphatic weight that the softer moments fail to surface. When tragedy strikes early on, Omari-Kinch symbolizes Josh’s inexpressible grief through a climactic but alienating display of gestures, one which seems overworked and actually renders Josh’s loss feeling distant and withdrawn.
Lighting designer Peter Small makes good use of the formidable technical heft the Paines Plough Roundabout stage offers, something not all Fringe spaces have at their disposal. Flitting, kaleidoscopic, whirling lights nicely evoke a sense of turbulence and signal the various temporal transitions. But these too can feel overly elaborate as a backdrop for the casual and natural register of James’s dialogue.
Most frustratingly, the audience engagement peppered throughout is clunky and feels like an afterthought (which is, incidentally, how it’s introduced by Josh). The incongruity of these interactions is only emphasised by O’Driscoll’s stylized choices; they sit in such completely different worlds that it’s hard to bring them together without awkwardness.
On the Other Hand, We’re Happy does touch on thought-provoking questions about the process of adoption. Abbie raises concerns that the questionnaire feels like bobbing for designer babies, and Josh sees how the system can discriminate against single fathers. When the audience is asked to admit whether or not they would consider adopting a child with HIV, it seems like On the Other Hand, We’re Happy is about to dive into the ethics of adoption. But weirdly no follow up is ever given, leaving the audience a bit bereft. Instead, this valuable thread is replaced by more plot-driven encounters, one of which is a rather excessive illumination of the parallels between Kelly and Josh’s lives.
When everything is more paired down, James’s writing is able to shimmer. And when it does, On the Hand, We’re Happy feels human, complicated, honest and beautiful.
On the Other Hand, We’re Happy is on at Summerhall until 24th August as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here.