Writer: Sian Rowland
Director: James Haddrell
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
You think you know the people around you but everyone has secrets that you may never discover… that is until they go missing. Sian Rowland’s new play Gazing at a Distant Star opening at Greenwich Theatre’s brand new Studio considers the process of suddenly losing someone close, the fear, worry and pain for the people left behind and most of all the shock at finding out that you never knew them at all.
In association with the charity Missing People, Gazing at a Distant Star is the story of Arun, Anna and Karen who have all lost people from their lives. Arun works in a call centre and hasn’t see co-worker and friend Glen in over a week. Anna’s sister Jane was the life and soul of the party until she met Pete and one day vanished, while Karen thinks teenage son Danny is on a lads’ holiday until he disappears from the hotel and the police come calling. What these three people find out will change them forever.
Sian Rowland’s play is packed with surprises and not just in the plot. It begins in traditional “talking heads” style, a dash of Alan Bennett’s wit with the everyday observation of Caroline Ahearn and Victoria Wood, but it slowly introduces dramatisation, multi-character perspectives and plenty of bittersweet comedy which expands each individual tale of suffering into a much more fulfilling tapestry of family life, work experiences and deep relationships.
Rowland’s writing, for the most part, gives equal life to the characters we don’t see as we learn about Jane’s love of teaching, dancing and Turner, while Glen’s pizza nights are as vivid as his friend’s time in the call centre. Much of the humour comes from the rounded creation of character as Glen fails to impress a girl in a club so Arun reminds him that “throwing up on a girl’s shoes is not the way to her heart”, while Anna’s charity run training allows her to point to the collarbone she’s finally discovered.
And while Rowland’s three stories overlap, they do it so subtly and lightly that it avoids feeling contrived or unlikely. Although these missing people briefly cross each other’s paths, none of that ever detracts from the essential loneliness and helplessness of Karen, Arun and Anna who cannot seek solace with one another.
The least successful story is that of Karen and her son Danny, largely because the audience never gets the same insight into Danny as we do the other missing people – he never quite lives off the page. And while the revelation of his secret borders on melodrama, it is saved by an emotive performance from Victoria Porter as Karen, the devoted single mother who is devastated and betrayed by her discovery. It is fine work by Porter in a series of tender monologues.
Harpal Hayer’s Arun is a lynchpin between the stories, stuck in a dull job on his gap year while he saves for university. For anyone familiar with office work, Hayer brings Arun’s world clearly to life as the mind-numbing boredom of the low-skilled work is punctuated with a brief work crush and the excitement of lemon drizzle cake. Yet, Hayer also shows Arun’s regret at not acting sooner, which cuts through his story nicely.
Most successful is Serin Ibrahim’s Anna who talks to the unknown Luca about her missing sister, Jane, and creates a sense of their closeness and happiness as a family. Mixing that with Anna’s unrealised guilt as she trains for a fun run allows Ibrahim to move successfully between happy memories and the more emotional consequences of loss.
Director James Haddrell brings Rowland’s text to life in a small space, rotating characters between desks and seats fluidly as they move into the foreground and then retreat. And while the 80-minute show does begin to flag towards the end, the ebb and flow between stories is well managed on the whole. When something terrible or inexplicable happens to someone you care about, it’s natural to ask whether you could or should have done more, or seen it coming and, as Rowland’s characters demonstrate, whatever the missing have done, there are only more questions for the people left behind.
Runs until 29 January 2017 | Image: Warren King