Bryony Lavery’s method for sorting through the love, death and sacrifice of Last Easter (a Passion Play of sorts) is through her character June’s appreciation for the painter Caravaggio. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” she says of The Taking of Christ specifically. She’s a lighting designer, and it’s his use of light which captures her: what’s touched by it and drawn attention to. How’s the light getting in, and from where? Who’s it hitting, beyond Judas and Jesus? Who’s chosen it? The artist includes himself in the corner of the painting holding up a lantern, part of it.
The first Easter of Last Easter features a slightly grim road trip to the sacred healing springs of Lourdes. The second involves a death. The death is an assisted suicide, and a story shared between friends who divide the telling of it between them, cutting over each other to tell us how they remember it going, what they were thinking, how unfortunately “undramatic” periods of waiting and thinking can be.
Tinuke Craig’s revival at the Orange Tree uses Elliot Griggs’ lighting design to take what Lavery has June say about light and how it tells us things to heart. It feels welcome to come back to in-person theatre with a production so accordingly conscious of light. A tiny blue-haloed Madonna figurine, big jungly vines entwined with fairy lights, electric grotto candles.
As June, Naana Agyei-Ampadu is a standout: she brings us with her all the way, resolute and sharp but fond, through her treatment for returning breast cancer. “Did I miss something crucial I could’ve done? Been?” she wonders, holding her life up to the light and turning it, trying to see where she might have avoided this. She’s supported with strength by Peter Caulfield as the irrepressible drag performer Gash, Jodie Jacobs as Leah, a gentle and grounded props maker. There’s also Ellie Piercy’s Joy, an alcoholic actor haunted by the ghost of her boyfriend who killed himself, whom she didn’t even love much, she protests.
For the most part, Last Easter is a comfortable, gently cheery comedy. Craig’s production is satisfyingly nimble and grounded, working well with Hannah Wolfe and Natalie Johnson’s design: characters steer themselves around on swivel chairs, memories are recreated in a moment, and a keyboard is a little underused considering its position as the only prominent unmoving piece of set. It takes some time for the production to settle into the rambunctious puppy it becomes charmingly later – at first, it feels a little as if people in the audience are too timid to laugh, that we want to learn and understand the rules of the telling first.
The first half of the play, taking in the first Easter, feels slighter than the second. The Lourdes trip, which delivers the characters anticlimactic tat rather than life-sustaining feats, is buttressed by a heavily significant promise made by Gash to obey June’s wishes when it comes to matters of life and death, and by one blossoming romance. There’s not quite enough time for this romance, though both sweet and difficult, and though suffused with great warmth by the actors, the characters all feel quite lightly sketched.
It’s in the second half that the love these friends have for each other begins to assert its fatal weight, and the shared narration, dipping us in and out of how scenes might have gone, how the characters remember it, feels like a device pointed with certainty. It’s this love that Lavery’s most concerned with, not getting into debate about assisted suicide and how these characters (one Catholic, one Jewish, one neoliberal white Buddhist, one anti-religious skeptic) reconcile themselves to it.
Instead, it’s about the light in the story: how June, Leah, Gash and Joy see and tell what happens, a sacrifice which is shared and stays with them. It’s not a story with many surprises, but its small details are told with care. It ends up a diffuse and slightly frustrating play, though an earnest one. June chooses where to look as she goes, when she goes and how she goes. We’re left with the assurance that light never clarifies only one subject but suggests others, without even meaning to, just by travelling.
Last Easter is on at the Orange Tree Theatre till 7 August. More info here.