As loud and rambunctious as the denizens of the tower block that it portrays, Luke Barnes’ adaptation of Richard Milward’s novel Ten Storey Love Song is less a play and more a narrative gig that explodes on stage in a tale of loneliness, love, and disappointment. With an electronic beat, a dynamic cast, and a haunting singer, this is a high-energy, layered story that manages to squeeze a tremendous amount of heartbreak and humor into an hour and fifteen minutes.
In Peach House in Middlesbrough, Johnnie (Edward Cole) and Ellen (Sophie Thompson) are on the dole. Destructive with each other but lost without each other they are surviving but not much more. As Ellen puts it, “I don’t register things like happiness.” Bobby the Artist (Marc Graham) and his girlfriend Georgie (Annabel Betts) were once close but as Bobby finds success with his painting and he loses himself in drugs they begin to drift apart. Alan Blunt (Matthew May) is a crotchety racist who makes no apologies for his attitude. “It’s no coincidence my life got worse as this country got more diverse,” he spits. He spends far too much time watching a little girl in the playground at the local primary school.
In this microcosm of Northeast England, in which 65% of the population voted to Leave, Barnes swims in the messy lives of these characters as they numb themselves with drugs and sex, struggle to find a path in life, and strain to find any meaning in their existence. But for us, we get a front-row seat to a raw and hyper-realized place that is as uncomfortable as it is colorful.
Woman are leered and shouted at. Anger and impotence boil beneath the surface until it explodes into violence. Sex becomes abuse. But Barnes manages to make these characters three-dimensional. He’s helped by a talented cast who flit between characters with casual ease.
Although the cast narrates the action with internal monologues galore, director Paul Smith stages the work with each actor holding a hand-microphone, a DJ, a singer, and a kaleidoscope of literal, abstract, and drug-induced images via projections behind them, so the space becomes more of an out-of-control party rather than a staid kitchen-sink drama. The cast not only performs their main roles (along with some smaller parts) but they also voice sound effects and rhythmic patter, act as pigeons, and there is one scene with a very funny police dog. The directing style serves the material well. On top of providing a pulsing visual energy, the pace of the storytelling is relentless as these characters’ lives become quite naturally wrapped around each other’s.
Each performer brings an uncomfortable truth to their roles. May is disturbingly creepy as the pervy Blunt but showing his range, he sloughs off that darkness entirely when he becomes a London art dealer. Betts beams and glows when talking about Georgie’s love for Bobby and shrivels when she speaks of her own dead-end job. Graham buries himself in his character’s oversize sweater—perhaps if he cannot see then maybe he can disappear. Cole and Thompson portray Johnnie and Ellen as less oil and water, and more napalm and flesh bringing subtlety to a couple who may love each other but are constantly inflicting pain on the other. It’s an impressive ensemble with nary a weak note.
In some ways the strength of the performances, the vivid vernacular of the work, and the atmospheric music (beautiful, haunting, and carefully calibrated) really make some of the projections redundant. For all the sugary and hallucinatory images, it was a simple smeary, rain-soaked window that became the visual that stayed with me.
All in all, Barnes and company conjure a specific and finely-crafted world. It may not be all joy and it is not all sorrow either, but it’s human and real.