In the latest grim stage of the government’s chaotic onslaught of coronavirus prevention measures, neighbours are being encouraged to spy on each other. The consequences could be miserable; a block of flats turned into a panopticon, full of watching eyes ready to snitch on rule-breaking gatherings down on the grass below, or glimpsed through the window opposite.
But Gemma Lawrence’s Sunnymead Court calls back to a warmer time in neighbourly relations. It follows two young women who strike up a connection from flats that look onto each other – and it’s set back in that moment in early summer, where people really did create new relationships (or stalemates, obsessions) with the people they’d been living alongside, indifferently, for years before. It feels like such a product of that specific time, where human contact-starved people were pushing notes through the doors of elderly neighbours (sometimes, so often that their riled neighbours would retaliate with “I can do my own shopping, THANK YOU’ window signs” of their own), or monologuing to strangers in cornershop queues, or trading flour or yeast or toilet roll. On my street, people would put sofa cushions on their windowsills and dangle their legs out into the warm sun, watching for passersby like peaceful sheep in fields.
Sunnymead Court is, often, a play about looking. Its two performers talk straight out to the audience, exposing their growing fascination with each other, one that’s heightened by a lack of human contact, and fed by glimpses of tiny moments; a morning coffee, some red geraniums placed on a balcony, bought and overwatered. This gaze is partly a product of lockdown and isolation. But this covert longing gaze is also such a core element of lesbian storytelling, and of queerness more generally, which thrives (in art, anyway) on secrecy, delayed fulfulment, and thwarted hopes. There’s sometimes a darkness, as in the ‘predatory lesbian’ trope, but cis women are coded so persistently as unthreatening that there’s a heightened cultural tolerance of behaviour which, from a cis straight man, would be presented as creepy or pathetic. Yearning is queer culture, why fight it?
For Marie, who lives alone, glimpses of her neighbour are rays of sunshine in the rigid and slightly sad routine she’s created to fill her days; coffee on the balcony, an egg, a favourite song at 11am. She’s learning to live without touch – so successfully that she’s become completely disconnected from her physical body. In one cleverly observed moment, she touches the lining of her nose, the only real-feeling patch of skin, to reassure herself she’s real.
Remmie Milner plays Stella, who’s Marie’s opposite in personality as well as flat location; she sleeps until late, and moves purposelessly through her days indoors with her loving but not entirely accepting mother, who relies on a ventilator. Unlike Marie, Stella grew up on this estate, and she buys cigarettes for the teenagers who hang out near the shop, instead of fearing them.
Marie feels like a character that’s close to Lawrence’s heart, like she’s written her from the inside out; the details, like her awkward claw-like wave from her balcony, are specific and telling. The outlines of Stella’s character feel a little blurrier, with the slight vagueness that an introverted writer’s imaginings of bolder souls sometimes do have. A few encounters with cigarette-addicted teens aside, this play also largely sidesteps ideas of gentrification, and the gulf there might be between this estate’s middle class newcomers and longer established residents. But this slight missing context is barely felt in a play that’s so deeply compelling in its pacing and momentum; Lawrence ingeniously uses the conditions of lockdown to keep this couple apart, creating missed connections and surprise encounters that could otherwise feel contrived.
It all feels a little bit Jane Austen (specifically, Persuasion) – or like stories of forbidden queer romances in cultures or times that forbid it. Lockdown is a setting that’s ripe for romantic narratives, because it holds a set of characters in a single location, while racking up the tension with restrictions around touch and contact. Like Austen, Lawrence stops just as her lovers finally unite. I found myself wondering at the end; do these two women actually know each other at all? Or are they just looking at imaginary versions of each other, strung together from tiny moments, heavily embroidered during hours indoors?
James Hillier’s production uses plenty of meta-theatrical devices to add a touch of now-ish-ness to a story that could otherwise feel quite timeless; the two performers cue up their own sound and lighting effects on stage. At first, Marie’s back is turned to the audience; instead, we see her face projected on the theatre’s back wall, an echo of the Zoom meetings she’s using as a substitute for human contact.
I originally thought I wanted stories that had nothing to do with Covid-19 as I cautiously returned to in-person theatre (an awkward, formerly oxymoronic phrase – but what else can we call it?). That feeling was confirmed at David Hare’s Beat the Devil, an autobiographical monologue at Bridge Theatre; it felt so jarring to be dragged back into an earlier, but equally horrible bit of the news cycle, and to relive the emergent cliches of coronatimes (the NHS clap, Cummings, the works). But Sunnymead Court holds “these unprecedented times” at arms length, just barely referencing them, enough that you could imagine that we’re dealing with the aftermath of some other cataclysmic event. Instead of trying to spell out the universal pains that everyone has already heard too much about, it gestures to less common experiences – like the queer person moving back in with a parent who doesn’t fully accept them, or the alienation of living entirely alone. And it uses lockdown to create just enough restraints for two relationships to evolve and catch light; mother and daughter growing together, as Stella and Marie finally meet.
Sunnymead Court is on at Tristan Bates Theatre until 3rd October 2020. It’s also available to livestream on demand from 5th until 11th October: more info here.