The miasma of memory feels such a literary modernist concern; now we outsource recall and rely on the gift of Random Access Memory it seems almost quaint, and yet however fleshed-out one’s Facebook timeline or lively a Twitter feed, the imprints of place and people which locate us in ourselves will surely become patchy as dead pixels. Just like Emily, recalling her life spent with her partner Josh as unreliability comes stuttering in this re-colorized monologue from a fragmented, lonely and optimistic place beyond the neural network.
Comedian and playwright Dave Florez follows up last year’s arresting Somewhere Beneath It All, a Small Fire Burns Still with a play structured like a blush, fading in from the edges with purple tints and receding just as gently. Emily lives in a place beyond measured time, fast forwarding and rewinding with what is almost a pleasurable will, often peaceful she lightly enquires of herself and surroundings, and without the obsidian hardness of nothing to weigh her down, the loss is something like an unending blanket or self-touring on a magic carpet. Only at the end do we perhaps realize what this kind of lucidity might be owing to, a gesture that is ambiguous and kind.
The “tangles” in her brain mapped by a PET scan reveal snapshots of chaises and racist colonialist stories, bleaching journeys on public transport where she spots a baby’s fist “empty but somehow atomic” as it protects its mother, the phantoms of masculine fists hurled at her face by men (“he can’t compete and he goes for me”) dissolve into Jessie Owens clenched palm at the Olympics; and an astonishing central motif of a vaginal fisting, digit by digit, a Proustian fisting from which rushes the euphoric energy of the past coordinating like distant fireworks. And it’s our grandmother’s female experience, woven into these blossomed cul-de-sacs, where these private memories whisper the public expression of their lives.
As Emily, Joanna Bending is a delight, striking a hazy but constantly engaging tone. Like Victoria Wood channeling Shirley Valentine she is surreptitious and open, scatty and flintily provocative, endearing to us, and, if endearing were a transitive verb, endearing everything she touches just as much as the world is alien and desaturated to her. Her light rasping voice flutters and grandstands, like a fragile dame, but at the same time earthly and real: a Bromley-based Blanche Dubois. Director Hannah Eidinow keeps things simple and direct, while a passage where the lights are turned off could happily disappear, and the slide show is perhaps a touch straight forward.
There are moments of funny, although the day time slot does this few favours, and from the moments the laughs are eventually cajoled you sense that with a looser more engaged audience Bending would soar. The phrase “it’s all gone a bit War Horse” is adroitly applied and there is an excellent deconstruction of Brian Wilson’s wonderment at growing up to be a man (“on LSD in a sandpit as it happens”) and still fancying his peers (“14”, “15”), how a woman is unlikely to fall for someone who still makes “earwax models of the A-Team”. And it’s this renewed sense of enquiry, which always undercuts the mode of regret which has Hand Over Fist earn our attention here where attention is in short supply.