There’s a dreamlike, woozy quality to Simon Longman’s two-hander – a truly impressive piece of new writing. When Jess appears on her sister, Sarah’s, doorstep soaked to the skin and clutching a goldfish bowl (occupied by a goldfish), Sarah is quite naturally taken aback. She hasn’t seen Jess in twelve years, and now suddenly here she is in her sparely furnished living room, talking at a rate of knots, words tumbling out of her.
Water is a recurring motif in Longman’s play, from the rain that streams constantly down the West Midland windows to Sarah’s anecdote about once having punched a swan, there’s a sense of things needing to be cleansed, to be swept away. Jess speaks in rivers, in brooks, she babbles, while Sarah watches on shocked and wary, like a pebble, letting it all wash over her.
Only slowly are we able to piece together their history, their troubled past, a life marked at a young age by death and loss. Jess was volatile and destructive as a teenager, and appears to have spent her lost years wandering the country in search of some kind of home, a place to belong. She’s brought half a pub with her, in her rucksack – “no wonder it was heavy” – and with the help of several cans of beer and a whole lake of wine, Sarah slowly acclimatises towards this interloper, this eruption, this odd hot presence in her home.
Longman’s play is a tender and brilliant thing, unexpectedly hilarious in places – a haunted and haunting piece of writing. The premise – long-lost sister turning up after years away – sounds, on the face of it, quite familiar, but it’s done so distinctively, the imagery, the alertness to detail, the conjuring of the sisters’ world, the saddest of stories delivered with little flickers of wit. The later scenes have a considerable emotional charge, somnambulant, a kind of exorcism and a summoning in one.
Director Clive Judd – together with his creative team from Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs – turns this brief encounter into something increasingly strange and hazy, as the booze – and other substances – flow, wine like water, a cascade. The room, with its sad scraps of nursery wall paper, seems to throb, to pulse with the red of memory, a queasy streetlamp glow filling the room. Judd is definitely someone to keep an eye on.
The performances of Sophie Steer and Sally Hodgkiss are superb, both pitched at just the right level, with Steer capturing the manic pathos of Jess and Hodgkiss’ bewildered and taciturn as Sarah, at least to begin with, gradually opening up as the night rolls on. The knowledge that throughout the run they are swapping roles for different performances is properly exciting – it’s hugely tempting to go back and see what each makes of the other’s role.
The ending, with its cool morning light, its dazed awakening, is also beautiful and startling, something else that makes me hungry to see the play for a second time, to watch it through the lens of this ending, to see how Longman seeds it in the text.