Ella Hickson’s second play has been considerably reworked since it first appeared at the Bedlam Theatre at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe. The premise remains the same but certain scenes have been strengthened and lengthened since that first showing, certain points clarified.
Hickson’s three-hander begins on a New York rooftop on Christmas Eve. This is where Sam, nineteen and bursting with adolescent chutzpah, first meets Joey, the English girl in New York, flight-frazzled and fidgety in a new city. One thing leads to another and they end up dashing through the New York night, wrapped in each other’s arms beneath the chandeliers of Grand Central Station. These opening moments, with their faintly unreal, US indie movie quality – Linklater-lite – are revisited later in the play and amusingly undermined.
Joey, it transpires, is in New York to visit the father she hasn’t seen in more than two years. Having recently lost her job and feeling increasingly uncomfortable at home following her mother’s remarriage, she is trying to build bridges. George, her father, a retired academic, has allowed the ties between them to slacken because he wants to shield her from his own mental and physical unravelling.
Joey is yet to discover this; she also initially does not realise that Sam, the boy with whom she shared her rooftop liaison, is also her father’s carer. The play turns its attention on the relationships between these three people who are so intimately connected – father and daughter; patient and carer – and yet distanced from one another, emotionally, culturally.
The character of Sam has benefited most from the reworking of the play. He retains his blithe American optimism and his certainty about how the world works, but there are greater hints at the things that drive him and these are drawn out by Anthony Walsh’s confident performance in the role. Ian Gelder also gives a measured and moving performance as George, a man all too aware of his own deterioration; his life has been one of the mind and now he is losing his hold on himself and the things he loves.
Joey is, oddly, the weakest point of the triangle. Her own struggle to gain a sense of her place in the world has lost some of its freshness; the play, on first viewing, gave a strong sense of what it meant to become an adult just as the rules about what exactly that means – in terms of career and security, in terms of the future – seem to be shifting dramatically. Yet this seems to have been diluted a little in the re-writes (or maybe it’s just that I have grown a little older, lived a little more). Sam’s kind manner and puppyish enthusiasm now seem to jar more with Joey’s capacity for child-like outbursts. Though the character of Joey as written gives a good account of what it is to be perched between adolescence and adulthood, Olivia Hallinan’s performance veers more towards the former. While her brittleness occasionally comes across as brattish, there is a measure of poignancy in her sudden need for her father’s reassurance, in her wish to recreate a proper English Christmas, just like the Christmases of her childhood. As a generational mouthpiece she’s on shaky ground but the character succeeds as a portrait of a confused, if rather self-involved, girl who suddenly feels at sea in the world and misses her dad.
With a longer running time, this reworking of the play is able to better flesh out all three relationships and allows for a more playful, plausible sense of attraction between Joey and Sam. The relationship between George and Joey, volatile but fuelled by love, is also elegantly portrayed in James Dacre’s new production and George’s monologue, in which he acknowledges all he stands to lose, is particularly moving (aided by Hickson’s sense of the poetic). That said, the culture clash humour can feel overplayed at times, an easy recourse rather than a source of real insight, and the final coda strikes a rather hollow note. The sheen of Washington D.C. on inauguration day and the way it feeds Joey’s need to belong to a moment, to be part of a movement, to just connect with something, all seems a trifle too neat a way to end a play that is otherwise brighter and sharper than that.
Read the Exeunt interview with Ella Hickson.