Families are made from memories. Soft-focus, hard-edged, ossified by nostalgia. Collections of human beings linked by little more than blood and shared history reconstitute themselves through telling, unfurling mothballed reminiscences over the festive detritus of wine glasses and chocolate boxes. Remember the time your uncle got drunk at that wedding. Remember when granny mixed up the pies for dinner. Remember that year little Catherine sang the “Twelve Days of Christmas” for everyone. With all the actions.
In Little Light, those memories are painfully loaded, groaning under the weight of stultified tradition and unspoken grief. In a house by the sea, a couple make careful preparations for a once-a-year ritual of remembering. Teddy is desperate to let in the light, ripping down staircases and smashing through walls, while Alison clings stubbornly to the shadows. When her younger sister Clarissa arrives, heavily pregnant and with boyfriend unexpectedly in tow, the strange ceremony is ready to begin. But this year it’s not going to plan.
Alice Birch’s play – her first, though not performed before now – is an extended exercise in tension-building. On the evening I see the production I’ve come straight from a screening of Whiplash, which had me white-knuckled throughout its 90 minutes of sweat, blood and cymbals. What writer/director Damien Chazelle does with drumming, Little Light does with the dinner party. It’s a format freighted with dramatic history, but in the hands of Birch, director David Mercatali and the excellent cast of four it feels fresh, fleet-footed and horribly nerve-fraying.
As Teddy, Alison, Clarissa and Simon clink glasses and break bread, they commence a routine that is at once familiar and unsettling. All the codes of a shared family language are there: the repeated anecdotes, the practiced looks, the choreographed passing of dishes and wine bottles. But there’s something far more odd and sinister lurking beneath the repetition. Stories are told with blank eyes and laughs jump cheerlessly from strained throats. Remembrances are aimed like daggers under the ribs; a matted lump of hair turns up in someone’s fish pie.
The effect is one of discomfort tinged with horror. Imagine the feeling of anticipatory dread in a scary film: that extended moment of sickening tension just before you know something bad is about to happen. Now imagine that stretched out across more than an hour. Because Birch and Mercatali manage to leave us groping around in the dark, keeping everything in the gloom until the final minutes. The rehearsed interactions of the characters clearly mean something of horrible importance to them, but we are robbed of the means to decipher them, forced instead to remain puzzled and on edge.
While it may not have the same kind of breathless, rule-breaking, fuck-you audacity as Birch’s searing Revolt. She said. Revolt again, Little Light still manages to repeatedly trip an audience’s expectations, deploying the same playfully serious manipulation of form. I was reminded briefly of Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness, which takes an Ayckbourne-esque domestic set-up and mercilessly rips it apart at the seams, except Birch’s unnerving dinner party gnaws at its own format from within. What looks familiar enough at first glance turns out to be chewing on something a lot more grisly.
The performances, too, keep us guessing. As Alison, Lorna Brown is distant, icy and cruel, until suddenly she’s not. Yolanda Kettle’s Clarissa gulps down the bitter medicine she’s fed by her older sister, the implicit shades of guilt, resentment and reluctant loyalty in her brittle acceptance of the situation suggesting the jagged edges of so many sibling relationships, while Paul Hickey makes an appropriately disoriented newcomer as her boyfriend Simon. And Paul Rattray’s Teddy, hands quivering at his sides, seems forever on the brink of explosion or collapse.
Finally, the play too has to either erupt or crumble with the weight of its building, pervasive menace. It turns out to do a little bit of both. But even climax and catharsis do not unfold as we might expect, offering far more lyricism and far less resolution than the domestic dramas that Little Light takes its lead from. The scab that Birch picks at might finally break loose but, as in so many families, the wound remains open.
Read our interview with director David Mercatali on Little Light and colour-blind casting.