Writer: Chloe Moss
Director: Charlotte Peters
Reviewer: David Guest
Brief encounters with lost souls form the framework of the deceptively quiet but powerful How Love Is Spelt at Southwark Playhouse.
It’s the first major revival of the assured and mature play by Chloe Moss since its premiere at the Bush Theatre in 2004 and it remains pertinent to today,resonating with the young, the lonely and all those seeking their own true identity.
Peta, a 20-year-old Liverpudlian, escapes to London in a bid to leave her past behind her – but a series of meetings in her borrowed flat (well-observed bedsit mess by designer Georgia de Grey) help her to learn about herself through a fascinating sequence of fantasies, role reversals, misunderstandings and home truths.
In the Small space at Southwark the audience is forced to be a party to the one to one conversations, up close and personal in a way that is uncomfortable as all of the characters question their self worth and leave unfulfilled. What do the big words in relationships, family, one’s own story actually mean – how is Peta spelt, how is friendship spelt, how is love spelt?
As Peta Larner Wallace-Taylor copes well with the tough task of being the inscrutable central character who is only gradually revealed throughout the play; we only truly learn who she is by what she doesn’t say or by her reactions to the others in the duologues. We can rarely trust her own words as her story about herself changes with each scene. But through each of the people she meets in some way aspects of her own life are mirrored.
It’s a great performance of restrained vulnerability, childlike but with a maturity thrust upon her by experience. Is she a fantasist or just someone struggling to avoid the disappointment of bruised hopes? The play ultimately provides no cast iron answer, but Wallace-Taylor paints an enigmatic and believable picture on the blank canvas of her role, sometimes strong, sometimes unsure, borrowing lines from one character to use to another as her personality is built up.
The other characters have to blend a sense of the ephemeral , haunting the growing pains of the girl they meet in very different scenarios, with a blunt reality: the cocky one-night stand, the awkward schoolteacher, the brassy clubber, the insomniac neighbour and the one whose actions lead to all the soul-searching. None of the nocturnal visitors truly listens to what Peta is saying and as a result nobody gets to the heart of her needs and issues – she tells all of her night-time visitors that she is afraid of the dark (though also recognises that, “Daytime doesn’t let you get away with much”) but each mistakes her yearning.
Even her simple oft-repeated request for someone to take her to the Aquarium on the South Bank is ignored, though director Charlotte Peters cleverly adds a dreamlike scene to suggest she gains the confidence to go by herself.
We first meet Essex boy Joe (a warm and personable Benjamin O’Mahony), who admits the one-night stand – which Peta seems instantly to regret – is the longest relationship he’s ever had. Fast-talking his way through an awkward morning after the night before, O’Mahony is perfect as a Jack the Lad with a broken spirit, sharing memories of a daughter he hasn’t seen for nine years.
Peta’s chat with her second visitor, the neurotic teacher Steven (played with twitchy tenderness by Duncan Moore) doesn’t even get as far as the morning after. Moore completely lands this socially bumbling loner, himself desperate to be noticed, craving spontaneity but never plucking up enough courage. He speaks of breaking up with an ex girlfriend and wondering what love actually is.
Chantelle (a sparkling and no-nonsense Yana Penrose) is the drunk girl who is dumped by a date in a club; Peta feels sorry for her and and looks after her. Chantelle’s story is about getting pregnant and a mother who doesn’t understand her, and Penrose ensures that the character is always completely authentic.
The fourth visit is also the most touching, thanks to Michelle Collins’ heartfelt portrayal of Marion, the neighbour from downstairs, who lends a helping hand. She sleeplessly waits for something she can’t identify, sadly bemoaning the difficulties of being a parent. The scene works well as there is such a strong rapport between the two actors.
The final visitor is the man whose black and white photo sits mysteriously on Peta’s bedside table – she gives a different explanation of who he is to each stranger. Nigel Boyle is the down to earth Colin, the plain spoken older man who wants things to be the same they once were. Peta wants him to listen to her above all others, but he only hears part of what she says. It’s a tough last scene which ends with no true resolution other than people daring to hope for something better.
Throughout, director Peters manages to find glimmers of light in the stories – she finds something more positive in the gloom this time around and the play feels all the more mature because of it. She also ingeniously has the characters inhabit the scene changes, allowing each of their tales to carry on beyond their particular exchanges and suggesting an ongoing influence on Peta.
The open-ended play is given a thoughtful and expressive treatment in this very classy and intense revival and one leaves genuinely hoping each of the characters we some to care about, however briefly met, has a happy outcome in life even when life itself seems to mete out such unfair treatment.
Runs until September 28 2019 | Image: Ali Wright