When Big Big Sky began, I immediately had two thoughts: I wondered why we were watching a show in what felt like Hampstead Theatre’s cafe, and noticed how palpable the friendship is between Angie and Lauren.
Tom Wells’ honest writing, brought to life in Bob Bailey’s careful design, places us all in a cafe in Kilnsea, East Yorkshire. In the early moments of the play we are introduced to Angie (Jennifer Daley) and Lauren (Jessica Jolleys), who work there, and Lauren’s dad Dennis (Matt Sutton). Then Ed (Sam Newton) bumbles into the cafe to rent a room in Dennis’ house ahead of a job interview. In the kind, suddenly accommodating interactions that follow we see that Big Big Sky is Wells’ ode to living in a happy, warm community.
The audience settles into Kilnsea through Ed’s overwhelmingly grateful eyes as he marvels at the bird residents of the area and awkwardly accepts cakes he can’t eat. At times, there are moments when the audience doesn’t laugh along with his one-liners: the jokes about veganism and ‘What would Greta Thunberg do?’ are funny the first couple of times, but can’t fulfill all of Ed’s potential for comic relief. But as you do in a small town, you soon get to know each character’s plans and ideas. Seeing how everyone relates to two central themes of the play – grief, and Kilnsea’s famous wildlife – adds another layer to each character.
A community is not centred around one person, so Big Big Sky doesn’t need to be either. Instead of everyone else’s trajectories veering towards Dennis’ new hobby, we learn what each character can offer to support him; rather than a story focused around Ed’s job interview, we watch as everyone’s life shifts to fit him in.
As a result of so many events and experiences being squeezed into this 90-minute snapshot of four peoples’ lives, however, the depths of this story do sometimes suffer. Dennis is still feeling the loss he experienced a few years ago, but this is not explored in any extended conversations or disclosures of his own. Rather, upon his entry, everyone’s attention shifts to his self-centred misery with a side of a pasty and beans. His connection to others’ storylines appears when he stumbles into them, rather than through a seamless connection to the rest of the show. Still, save for this, and a contrived fairytale ending for two characters, Big Big Sky is a tale of the spontaneity and consistent care that can be relied upon in small circles of family and friends.
As I said, a community is not centred around one person but to me, Angie is the star of the show. She carries the story with an unconditional care offered to everyone around her, despite whatever she may be working through herself. As the show goes on, it becomes clear that her medium of care is food, whether it’s fetching peppermint tea and a vegan brownie for Ed, or Dennis’ daily plate of comfort food. Angie’s connection to Kilnsea’s birds is tender and invites us all to wonder: if we saw an albatross, would our first instinct be to get the perfect photo or to simply sit back in awe? It is with Angie that every character has a chance to reflect, take stock, and have a song and dance. As Angie, Jennifer Daley does well to offer a consistently down-to-earth presence in this play.
Tom Wells and director Tessa Walker have crafted a warm, genuine portrait of life in Kilnsea. That there is room for Lauren’s singing and guitar playing, Dennis’ photography, and Ed’s impressive fences to protect the little ferns is testament to the story’s spontaneous and serendipitous development. Sound designer Laura Howard’s touch of featuring Lauren’s music on the soundtrack holds this narrative of a self-sustaining community. Big Big Sky shows us that there is room for all of us to have a chat, see the albatrosses, and try something new.
Big Big Sky is on at Hampstead Theatre till 11th September. More info here.