Some shows feel too beautiful to write about. SPARKS feels like one of those shows. Fumbling for words, I feel like a butterfly collector trying not to crush the wings of my specimen as attempt to pinion it to a board.
I say I feel rather than I think because SPARKS was a play I felt, far more deeply than I expected. And when the tears came they would not stop. And part of that might have been sleep deprivation, and hormones and general fringe overwhelm. And part of it is because last year my best friend’s mum died and I have been trying to support her or just be there but I don’t quite know how. It is devastating to watch someone else grieve and to know that your grief for them and the person they are grieving is only a tiny fragment of what they must be feeling. There is a bit in SPARKS where Jessica Butcher is heaving herself across the floor on her hands, sadness so heavy on her body she physically cannot get up.
SPARKS is gentle and gently devastating. Jessica Butcher, dressed in a white vest and grey trackie bottoms, and Anoushka Lucas, dressed in a fabulous blue sequinned evening gown, play the same person – one speaks in words and the other speaks in music. Butcher’s script is studded with humanising details: the glow in the dark stars in her childhood bedroom that her mum stuck on the ceiling; the mango lassi and jar of pickles she buys to eat at the bus stop after a date. It never takes itself too seriously. There is an irreverence to Lucas’s original music too, like the baroque organ music she plays to accompany a game of laser quest. Magpie like, it steals shiny bits from a huge range of musical styles – a familiar musical chord structure, rolling spread chords, songs that breath acoustic folk. The music lifts the show beyond words, beyond the banal realities of carrying on living. But those realities are heart-breaking too. Butcher’s list of questions she can no longer ask a person: ‘Can I put this jumper in the washing machine? Do I have a dentist?’ The dial tone of a disconnected number.
There is a disarming chemistry between Butcher and Lucas, brought out by Jessica Edwards’ beautiful direction. In one of the most powerful moments of the show, Butcher delivers a quiet monologue about visiting her mum in the nursing home, not to the audience but to Lucas. They sit opposite each other, hugging their knees, tears tracing down their cheeks.
The bit I responded to most strongly in SPARKS is only one strand of the show. Its main story is about being swept up in a new relationship. The pressure to get your life sorted by the time you’re 30. Searching for love, anywhere it might manifest. The two strands don’t always connect but structurally they’re essential to one another, the humour and the sadness interwoven like a skein.
After the show, when I was trying to pack my feelings away to go on to the next show but the tears would not stop, a woman about the same age as my mum enveloped me into a hug and said ‘I know’. I got snot on her sleeve. And I felt bad because what if she thought my mum – who is very much alive – was dead. Like a child when you worry that someone you love is dead and then you have to check they’re still alive because you worry you might actually have caused it by worrying. Just me?
Go and see SPARKS. If you can, take your Mum. And hold her tight.
Sparks is on at Pleasance Courtyard until 26th August, as part of the 2018 Edinburgh fringe. More info here.