Left behind. Two words that have become politically charged since last year’s EU referendum. Leave voters had been left behind. That was the narrative. They’d been left behind and they wanted to take back control.
Jimmy’s been left behind. His ex-wife, his daughter and the company he dedicated his working life to have all gone on ahead without him. Now he lives in his mum’s house in Newport (where the Leave campaign won almost 56% of the votes) and works in ’Nuts, the city’s only drive-through doughnut restaurant. The nearest thing to intimacy in his life is the nine minutes a week he spends calling a sex line.
There’s a deep, throbbing vein of loneliness running through Alan Harris’ play. His characters are the people who really have been left behind by recession and austerity, stranded without job or community or identity. When he gets laid off for a second time, Jimmy tells us that he always used to think of himself as working-class. What does that make him now? “Non-class.”
How My Light Is Spent is a strange, delicate thing. Essentially a two-hander, with a sprinkling of other minor characters played by the pair of performers, it’s an offbeat romance wrapped around a wail of despair. It’s about Jimmy and it’s about Kitty, the phone sex worker whose life becomes gradually entangled with his. She’s lonely too, shut away in her flat answering phone calls and saving up for a psychology course it’ll take years to pay for. They both spend a lot of time talking to people without ever truly connecting.
Staged in traverse, Liz Stevenson’s production underlines that isolation and yearning. As they tell us Jimmy and Kitty’s story, actors Rhodri Meilir and Alexandria Riley walk up and down a catwalk-like platform that rises up from the centre of the Royal Exchange Studio, the concrete slabs and thick ropes of Fly Davis’s design nodding to Newport’s lost industrial past. Raised above us, the performers are separated from the audience and often contained in their own little patches of light. This is an atomised world, where people exist as individual units. Jimmy and his mother phone one another from within the same house rather than talk face to face; Jimmy and Kitty find companionship in separation.
This could be a gentle, slender, domestic story, and in many ways it is. But Harris’ little bit of brilliance is to have Jimmy begin disappearing. Literally. It’s not a complex metaphor, but the idea of a man becoming invisible bit by bit, fading away as he loses his purpose and dignity, makes for a striking indictment of what unemployment and austerity actually do to human beings. It’s magical-realism by way of light yet damning political critique.
Much like fellow Bruntwood Prize-winner Wish List, How My Light Is Spent turns loving attention to forgotten, unseen lives. It’s all compassion, from the excellent performances – Meilir weighed down with misery and regret, Riley guarded but with a hidden softness – to the beautifully written dialogue. And like the characters in Katharine Soper’s play, Jimmy and Kitty burn brightly when given the chance, a flickering beacon of optimism in a dark and lonely world.
That optimism feels particularly vital right now. I should say that I first met Jimmy and Kitty almost two years ago, when I read Harris’ play in the second stage of judging for the Bruntwood Prize. Then, it had a more subdued and poignant ending, its closing note of hope more tentative and ambiguous. Happy endings can feel like a cop-out, but the changes that Harris has made for this production come across as defiant rather than crowd-pleasing. In an increasingly harsh and disconnected society, Jimmy and Kitty refuse to be broken.
How My Light Is Spent is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until May 13th. For more details, click here.