In December 2014 my husband bought a calendar containing pictures by J. M. W. Turner. I thought this was really lame. Is there anything less cool than having a Turner calendar? I sneered. But up it went and there it stayed until, in late December 2015, I found myself back in the same W H Smiths combing through the dregs of that year’s calendar supply. Very few remained and of the ones that did the – yes – Turner calendar was actually the best of a bad bunch. But a Turner calendar TWO years running? Insert pithy Oscar Wilde quote about repeating the same misstep. But I decided to embrace the trick of fate and buy it. Fast forward to December 2016 and this time I march purposefully towards the post-Christmas W H Smiths: I am going to buy a Turner calendar! Deliberately. Why? Because one Turner calendar is odd, and two is odder. But three forces the practice into the realm of normalcy. Oh, the Turner calendar? We always have Turner calendars.
I found myself telling this rambling and relatively tedious anecdote via Skype a few months ago by way of avoiding the awkwardness that arises when talking to someone who reminds you that the past existed even thought you would rather save yourself the embarrassment of being reminded of the person you were back then. Not, as in, the Victorian age, but just ‘the past’. The past of less than a decade, but still the past from before the time came when I fell in love with a man with a dodgy taste in calendars. Nic McQuillan’s new one-man play Ebb is full of similar moments of deliberate verbal detours. It also, funnily enough, mentions Turner, in this case in the form of a foreboding artwork staring down on the lone character as he makes his way in and out of his bedroom. In this respect, and several others, there is an old fashioned quality to the narrator. Remove the specifics of his online job re-writing LinkedIn profiles, and the situation depicted could be from almost any moment in the history of mankind: getting dumped.
Actually, that’s unfair. It’s unclear if the voice of the monologue has been dumped, but they’ve certainly split up with their partner. From the notes of regret that percolate through the text, we can assume the end was not instigated by the one talking. Whilst the particulars of the breakup are not mentioned, many other things are. Throughout, there is a basic attempt to stick to relaying day-to-day activities – the making of tea, the sitting at the computer, the staring at the artworks on the wall – but fragments of memories keep invading, as you only realise they are capable of doing after you catch yourself having fallen into one. Yet despite their frequency, the character is aware than they are getting weaker; the sense of the person lost is still there but the parts that made her up – her hair, her glasses, her tastes – are become fuzzier by the day.
As McQuillan’s work reaches towards its conclusion, the feeling of regret gives way to acceptance. The choice of the title, ‘ebb’, suggests an awareness that this type of loss is as much a part of existence as witnessing the changing tides, and fighting against it only really makes it worse. Again, there is also a gentle old-timey sensibility to the choice of ‘ebb’. Maybe it’s because of the inclusion of Turner, but I imagine that ‘ebb’ is the sort of title someone not immune to dipping into Matthew Arnold would select.
On which note, at slightly less than 40 minutes long, Ebb almost resembles a long poem more than a one-man play. Performed against a simple set design of flickering lamps – standard lamps, cutesy Pixar-jumping lamps, bedsidetablelamps – Ebb is an unfussy piece of performance. Keeping it as such really suits it. The best parts of the text describe accurately the universally mundane parts of a break-up, whilst the more embellished parts – in particular a slightly over-staged introduction mentioning an old acquaintance seen earlier in the evening – contain less impact. What made me warm to it, however, is that its resolution comes in the form of giving in to changing fate, living fully through the dragging back of the tide whilst waiting, knowing, that at some point the reverse will occur. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow and accept that the Turner calendar was meant to be.
Ebb was on at the Alma Tavern in Bristol. Click here for more details.