Some theatres are brilliant and just a little flashy (hello Almeida). Some theatres are scrappy and unafraid (I’m looking at you, The Yard). Some feel like part of the landscape (The National) and others, such as The Old Vic (where I interned aeons ago), for purely personal reasons feel like coming home. The Orange Tree, under artistic director Paul Miller and executive director Sarah Nicholson, is all heart. It’s a theatre I keep returning to, in the hope that I might stop thinking so much about theatre and let myself feel.
An Octoroon, Jess and Joe Forever, The March on Russia: all these recent Orange Tree productions have floored me with their openness, compassion and generosity. All these plays have made me cry. Here is a theatre that isn’t afraid to be human – small when it needs to be, modest when necessary, and dazzling only when the play demands it. That sort of humility and humanity is a much rarer quality than you might imagine. Joe White’s debut play Mayfly shares all these traits. It isn’t perfect. Sometimes it feels perilously self-aware and a little over-engineered – but there is an honesty to White’s writing, and a willingness to put his heart on the line, that makes this another special show from a special theatre.
As with a lot of recent plays at The Orange Tree, Mayfly is set in the countryside, in a tiny village in Shropshire with (I’m paraphrasing here) “about 10 really old people in it”. It’s a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Where the sense of community is strong, but where the possibility for loneliness is also ever-present. It’s a place with an uncertain future. Where farms are fading fast, where the local pub is about to shut, and where lots of people are struggling to find a job or just a purpose in life.
Loops and her parents, Ben and Cat, are struggling more than most. Today – the day of our play – is a significant day for this family, the one-year anniversary of an awful tragedy for Ben, Cat and Loops. This morning, dad Ben “slipped” into the river, mum Cat keeps making drunken phone calls to a dearly-loved “babe” who will not pick up, and Loops is so desperate for a distraction that she has decided to put on her mother’s best sparkly dress and track down a boy, Harry, who once touched her right nipple on a cool summer’s night.
All the characters are desperate for human contact, but grief has wound its way around them, physically forcing them apart. Ben (Simon Scardifield, almost glowing with grief) is so stunned by his sadness that he cannot look his family in the eye. For much of the play, Ben’s eyes roam the stage, hunting out a loneliness that might take the edge off his pain. Cat’s grief has materialised as a sort of madness and she spends her days downing wine and flirting with strangers. Niky Wardley’s performance is brave and self-effacing: she doesn’t try to steal the stage with her grief and instead injects Cat with an awful brittleness. Touch her and she might shatter into tiny pieces. And then there is Evelyn Hoskins’ Loops, who we ultimately discover is sister to this family’s dead son. She was conceived as the “playmate” for her older brother and, without him, finds herself lost, haunted, and angry.
Wedged into the centre of this family is Harry who, over the course of the play, winds up accidentally meeting Ben, Cat and Loops. Sometimes these meetings feel a little contrived, but there’s an authenticity to White’s writing that stops the audience from pulling away. Irfan Shamji is brilliant as Harry, the hapless lad caught in a web of grief. He is the play’s light relief and the family’s salvation. He is all the little moments – the laughs and silly experiences and coincidences – that make up a good life, despite the big and heavy stuff.
There’s a gorgeous scene way up on a hilltop, where Harry and Loops take magic mushrooms and talk about grief, death and faith – all the big stuff. For much of the production, Guy Jones’ direction and Cécile Trémolières’ set is unassuming and restrained (the same goes for Christopher Nairne’s intelligent lighting). But every once in a while, all these subtle theatrical flourishes – these small but significant human touches – pull together and create something big.
So way up on the hillside, with our lost and lonely and increasingly fucked young friends, we look around and notice that little birds have been lit up across the theatre stalls. Leaves rustle in a tree that looms over the stage and the lighting begins to play with our senses. Harry and Loops talk about what happens after death. For Loops, there is only emptiness, and the black expanse that surrounds the stage seems to agree with her. For Harry, death is merely a transference of energy from one state to another; and we notice little lights glimmer and dance through the trees. Nature is another member of this family: it is both comforting and terrifying, a sweeping embrace but also a reminder of one’s own insignificance and an opportunity for total abandonment.
In a final catastrophic showdown, the big and small aspects of the play, the silly and profound aspects that make up any human life, converge. Ben makes supper for his family and Harry, and pricks holes in the top of a microwave curry. That sound, laughs Ben, is “the loneliest sound in the world”. Ben raises a glass to his son in a small gesture of hope, but this one glass of champagne also marks the end of Ben’s sobriety. Ben loans Harry a top, since Harry’s t-shirt is covered in sick, the messy residue of Harry and Loops’ epic hillside chat. The top just happens to belong to Ben’s dead son. “Nice material”, Harry blusters, a brave attempt at humour amid all this sorrow. Finally, Harry shares his own grief with this family, and his own private revelation: “It’s the little stuff that counts, isn’t it?”
And with this small but brilliant speech – this talk of shared beers and quiet laughter – Loops and her mum turn to each other across the table and their eyes, finally, meet. It’s only a tiny moment, really, but it’s everything.
Mayfly is at the Orange Tree Theatre until May 26th. For more details, click here.