There are many things to admire about Alice Birch’s startling debut. It’s an assured piece of writing, a gripping exercise in the control and release of information in which she demonstrates a superb understanding of just what to give away, when to give it away, and what to hold back.
Set over a hot July day in Stoke Newington, it tells the story of four people via four interlinking monologues. These characters are initially familiar types. Ollie has just dropped out of his PhD, he highly intelligent, obsessed with the cosmos, but exceptionally socially uneasy to the point where you suspect he might be on the lower end of the autistic spectrum. Meg is pregnant and suffering from an unspecified malaise, she knows the price of every expensive kitchen gadget but has never felt real love. Juniper is incessantly perky, an eternal optimistic; she’s ‘actively’ looking for love, but hints at an inner sadness. Robert is by some way the oldest of the four, a dignified soft-spoken man caring for a wife who is slowly being lost to Parkinson’s.
Birch switches between these characters and their voices, their stories. From the beginning she sets up particular expectation which she gradually and subtly undercuts and plays with. Meg’s anaesthetised life of jam-making and Debussy is shadowed by something black; she spends her time online, clicking on hate-filled sites – she has four separate Facebook profiles. Juniper, who wears butterfly pins in her hair and describes her personality as ‘cartwheely’ has no-one to celebrate her birthday with. The nurse who looks after Robert’s wife refuses to speak to him, which sets one wondering about the particular nature of the support circle he talks about, while Ollie’s endearing nerviness around women and matters of a sexual nature hides the darkest truth of all.
Birch’s writing is poetic and rich with imagery so when she slides in an unsettling detail, which she does often, it’s doubly shocking. The performances are all of a comparable standard, relishing the power of the writing. Esther Hall captures Meg’s emotional flatness; she convinces as a comfortably off thirty-something mother-to-be yet there’s an overwhelming sense of absence to her performance – she’s both there and not there. Edward Franklin is sweet and open as Ollie which makes Birch’s revelations about his character all the more troubling. Jonathan Newth deftly captures the ambiguity of his character; he gains the audience’s sympathy and never entirely loses it even when his past comes into focus. Esther Smith, as Juniper, has the most winning role and she is quite heart-breaking in it: hopeful, kind, a little ditzy, yet conveying kind of delicate desperation underneath.
Director Derek Bond moves the characters around the stage from time to time, but otherwise the piece is quite static; he trusts the writing to do the work and it does. Where he excels is in the building of tension; this is superbly handled. The play grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go until the end and the audience’s final awkward expelling of breath. James Perkins set is stylised and elegant with two chairs and a sculptural metal sphere at its centre, the curve of the stage floor suitably askew.
Once Birch plays her hand and it becomes clearer who her characters are and what they have done, the piece is a little diminished – but only a little. There is a sense of having been here before (in this same space in fact with Stephen Brown’s Future Me) and the internet is depicted as a place, not of community but of contamination, in a way that while persuasive is ultimately overstated. The play works best as a portrait of social disconnect and of the loneliness one can feel in a city full of people; it’s a confident and exciting piece of writing, and as a debut, as a marker of things to come, it’s one to remember.