Writer: Alison Carr
Director: Yasmeen Arden
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Caterpillar opens the new autumn season at Theatre 503, one of London’s stalwarts of new writing. For the first half of this play, set in a B&B in a seaside town, it seems like the season is off to a good start, but a sudden plunge from comedy to horror in the second half means that this caterpillar doesn’t quite turn into a butterfly.
Alison Carr’s play begins with Simon arriving at a guesthouse in a resort, somewhere like Blackpool. Despite his reservations, he doesn’t get the Northern welcome he expects. Maeve, the landlady has already gone to bed, and her daughter Claire is drunk and has blood on her shirt. Simon isn’t discouraged though. He’s taking part in the Birdman competition where people jump or hang-glide off the end of the pier. The person who flies for the longest wins a big prize.
However, Simon isn’t jumping for the money: he’s jumping in the memory of his girlfriend who died from cancer. Maeve and Claire take pity on him, and let him stay despite the fact that Maeve is still recovering from her stroke, and that Claire is heading back to her family. It’s a wonderful set-up, and Yasmeen Arden – director of Nest, one of the best plays at this year’s Vault Festival – keeps the action crisp and swift, and, in the first half, light. It all looks sharp too in Maeve’s guesthouse, evocatively and meticulously designed by Holly Pigott, and the slatted walls let in the seaside light effectively to give a real sense of time and place.
The gentle seaside humour disappears after the interval, and this move to darker matter exposes some problems with the writing. Each character now reveals secrets, and while these secrets raise important issues such as abuse and mental illness, these ambitions could have been flagged earlier on in the first half. This change in direction makes the play feel disjointed, and the narrative is in danger of falling off the pier in the same way as the Birdman competitors.
With her brutal honesty and her mocking tones, Claire could be an abhorrent character, but fortunately, Judith Amsenga manages to give her some charm. Alan Mahon as Simon perhaps has the most difficult job as the disclosure of his secrets requires him to move quite far from his early affable nature. He almost pulls it off, but it is a difficult task and his ultimate grotesqueness seems misplaced. As Maeve, Tricia Kelly gives a sterling performance and copes well with the abrupt change in style of the second half, with the consistency of her character at least giving the play some structure.
For a play about flying, it is surprising there’s no mention of Icarus, who, in Greek mythology, flew so close to the sun that his wings melted. Caterpillar occasionally flies too close, but at the same time never close enough. The play doesn’t crash and burn, but neither does it soar.
Runs until 22 September 2018
Image: The Other Richard