James Phillips’s new play is rather rare a find: a play about history that has a heartbeat. So often the process of extracting the whys and wherefores of any historical situation ends up – however earnestly – killing the drama. Wisely, I think, and thoughtfully, Phillips focuses not on the facts as such, but on the memory of them, and how they change over time.
Hidden in the Sand opens with Jonathan, a middle-aged Classical scholar, attempting a rather furtive fumble with a woman who owns the local jewellers, Alexandra. After the somewhat hesitant beginning, it turns out Alexandra is a bit of a firecracker, and the pair hole themselves up in her flat for a weekend’s lovemaking, only to be disturbed when Alexandra’s niece, Sophia, turns up unannounced and the real world comes crashing down around their idyll. It turns out Alexandra is a refugee from the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and she has a husband, Nikos, who is one of the ‘missing people’ – the 1,600 or so Greek Cypriots either killed or in jail but as of then – and the play is set roughly in about 1998, as far as I could tell – unaccounted for.
From there, essentially, the play becomes a fact-finding mission as, with vigour renewed by Sophia’s new-found fame as a war photographer, and the fact that Jonathan just so happens to be going over to Turkish-Cyprus in a few weeks on a dig, they try to find out what became of the young man Alexandra was once – and still is – hopelessly in love with. And here is one of the great strengths of the play, hearing Alexandra talk about Nikos and the effect time has had on her memory. When they were together, she was 18 and he 24, and he was a person, a journalist, who had seemed so vastly more grownup and sophisticated than she did. Now, as the years have passed she says she misses him as a mother might miss her child, hindsight changing everything.
Phillips’s script is filled with incredibly thoughtful insights such as these, moments of clarity where some unspectacular truth is voiced so unspectacularly that it hardly feels like any ‘writing’ has been done at all. In fact, the play only slips when the writing becomes a little too evident. Sophia, for example, has a touch of the Oscar Wildes about her – too prone to making witty remarks that feel a little forced and rather like they belong to a slightly different play.
Still, the acting is absolutely first rate. Sally Dexter, more commonly seen in West End musicals like Sister Act and Oliver! than something like this these days, is fantastic as frenzied and passionate Alexandra. Scott Handy too, is perfectly cast as the middle-aged professor: kind, wound a little too tightly perhaps, but unhappy about it and trying to change. Yolanda Vasquez also deserves a mention; she plays the cameo-role of Sophia’s mother and manages to draw, in so few brushstrokes, such an incredibly rich and detailed character.
The production does have a few problems – the pacing in the first act is a little sluggish, and once or twice some of the dialogue hits a bum note – but it is a much more warm and thoughtful play than it has any right to be.
Hidden in the Sand is an incredibly well-written and moving play and, for anyone who still gives a shit about love, I can only recommend it wholeheartedly.