Writer: Simon Stephens
Director: Sarah Frankcom
Composer: Jarvis Cocker
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Sarah Frankcom bows out as Artistic Director of The Royal Exchange not with a star-studded bang but an intimate, bittersweet family drama that has surprising bursts of humour and bags of charm.
Christine (Rebecca Manley) is an alcoholic whose grown-up children have scattered to various northern towns. In Blackpool primary schoolteacher Jess (Witney White) is drawn to a stranger with a history of violence. In Ulverston Ashe (Katie West), who has attempted suicide, struggles to cope as a single mother and confronts the father of her child. In Durham Steven (David Moorst) confesses to his boyfriend that he still feels ashamed of his mother’s drunken antics. Meanwhile, in Doncaster, husband Bernard (Lloyd Hutchinson) has dinner with the women with whom he is later to have a threesome. When Christine has an aneurism she is able, in her dying moments, to see exactly what the future holds for her family.
Light Falls is a deceptive play. This is apparent upon entering the theatre; initially, Naomi Dawson’s set looks simple-bare wood floors and a few basic kitchen chairs. It then becomes clear that an entire wall of the theatre has been taken up with a series of massive steps upon which the cast enter and exit or simply sit when not centre stage. The abstract nature of the set makes it possible to imagine the events might be taking place in Christine’s imagination as she nears the end of her life. Director Sarah Frankcom, however, uses the back to basics set to create an intimate atmosphere. Despite being staged in a mainstream theatre with a large cast Light Falls has the up close and personal tone of a studio or fringe production; which is perfect for a family drama.
Jarvis Cocker is credited as writing the music for the play. The lyrics reflect the familial and regional themes of the play mourning manufacturing emptiness and articulating a parent’s hopes for their child. Actually the music is very limited with snatches of verse here and there and a concluding performance of a full song. Again, however, the manner of the performance is deeply personal – the songs are sung without instrumental backing which must be nerve-wracking for the cast but packs an emotional punch.
Like the region and people it depicts Simon Stephens’s script is fractured jumping from place to place and different characters so rapidly keeping track of who is who becomes initially a challenge. The importance of home and family runs through both the script and Cocker’s lyrics. The script is melancholic and full of regret about past mistakes but despair is absent. The resilient characters may be wounded but are far from dead and are determined to keep on. Only Ashe’s ex-partner seems beyond redemption; returning as a recovering drug addict from rehabilitation his efforts to apologise for his past behaviour seem more about making himself feel better than repairing the harm he caused.
With characters including an alcoholic and a failed suicide one might expect Light Falls to be dour and depressing but, again, the play is deceptive. Tenderness arises in the oddest moments. Bernard, who seems the world’s most unlikely swinger, respectfully assures his mistress he will not share the pornographic photographs she provided. The script is full of wit and charm; Jess’s explanation that she moved to Blackpool as it is promoted as ‘the new Manchester’ generates the puzzled response of why she didn’t just move to Manchester.
Light Falls shows The Royal Exchange at its best, making excellent use of the intimate theatre in the round, playing tribute to the local area and, most importantly, staging an imaginative and charming new play.
Runs until 16 November 2019 | Image: Manuel Harlan