Abrupt time jumps, minimalist staging, and conversations that dance around issues can sometimes serve a play well. Mike Bartlett’s play Cock and Duncan Macmillan’s play Lungs, have delivered riveting dramas using these strategies. The Human Ear, by Alexandra Wood, investigates the impact of grief on a family. But her approach is more subtle and the resulting drama comes across a bit too small.
Lucy (Sian Reese-Williams) answers the door to a man who tells her he is her brother Jason (Abdul Salis). They have not seen each other in 10 years. Still grieving over the recent death of their mother, Lucy, all raw and regret, is so grateful to see Jason. They lost their father years before when he was a soldier in Kuwait and their mother appears to have died in a senseless act of violence. So Lucy’s terror at being alone is relieved by Jason coming back into her life. But when Lucy’s new boyfriend, Ed (also Salis), a local policeman, comes to see her, he brings news about Jason that Lucy cannot quite believe or process.
In staccato bursts, the play flashes back to various moments in Lucy and Jason’s lives and forward to their reunion. The play does the same in Lucy and Ed’s nascent relationship which came about through the investigation of her mother’s death. With Abdul Salis doing double duty as Ed and Jason, sometimes these quick changes culminate in a character switch as well. All this rapid fire movement suggests our perspective is that of a neural storm in Lucy’s head as she struggles to adjust to yet another tragedy in her life.
With crisp direction from George Perrin, rapid lighting changes (Emma Chapman) and pithy sound design (Dominic Kennedy), it’s clear throughout the production who Lucy’s talking to and where in time we are. Reese-Williams and Salis (both fantastic in last year’s Roundabout showing of Lungs which returns to Fringe this year again) serve the play well.
But there’s not much plot to unfold here (and that which is unraveled feels stretched). Wood leans heavily instead on the repetition of phrases and moments to build Lucy’s psychological profile which dominates the play.
Circling grief and reconciliation from a number of angles we watch Lucy wrestling with the ephemeral “feeling” she has about Jason versus the “evidence” she is shown about him. The play keeps scraping away to get to the marrow of what it takes to see that which you do not want to see. But progress is minute and incremental. Rather than build up to something cathartic or dramatic, The Human Ear takes its time, unfolding all too slowly.