Lovesick –  Hope Theatre, London

Reviewer: Rachel Kent

Writer: Georgina Barley

Director: Marlie Haco

You can lose it, break it, and give it away. In reality, as Dr Maggie points out in Georgina Barley’s absorbing new play, the heart is just ‘electrified meat’ – though all those things – loss, breakage and donation -are still possible.

This is a beautifully written and accomplished first play, which builds to a revelatory climax and ends on a note of consolation. Every line of the natural-sounding dialogue carries weight and leads to another development in the relationship between the two main characters, Maggie and her patient Sarah. One of them recalls playing Sims, when a green line calibrated progress or setbacks in a friendship. This play does that much more subtly. The language is not overdecorated but at times a striking image arises – a single shoe illustrates the theme of missing parts. Barley, who is also a poet, pays attention to the sounds within words. ‘I’m not gay’, says Maggie, apologetically. ‘I’m engaged!’ counters Sarah.

Marlie Haco’s skilful direction focuses as much on movement as on language, using it both for emphasis and suggestion. The heart operation is represented with a few hand motions, establishing an undertone of magic realism which continues throughout. When Maggie gets what we later learn is a shocking piece of news, her voice responds elegantly, ‘What?’, but her whole body arches backwards, hinting at much more disturbance than is contained in that word. Both actors use gesture to convey character. Maggie’s movements are usually calm and smoothing, while Sarah’s tend to be extravagant and – ironically for a transplant patient – full of life.

Casting is just right. Nothing in the programme suggests that Avena Mansergh-Wallace has any medical training, yet there is a cool containment about her which inspires real trust. She makes Maggie dignified and professional as long as she is able to suppress her own secrets, but shows her to be as vulnerable as anyone else in the end. Barley as Sarah is variously exuberant, anxiously hunched or convincingly drunk. Her wonderfully expressive features contrast well with Mansergh-Wallace’s more enigmatic ones. Clearly junior, both in age and experience, her character raises challenging ideas – among them a comically disturbing version of the chicken and egg riddle. Gabriel Akamo, who only appears in the last scene, impresses as the substitute doctor. Dispensing tea from a thermos, he offers quiet words of comfort.

Victoria Maytom’s thoughtful design includes interesting use of colour. Maggie wears neutrals, and Sarah red. At their moment of greatest intimacy, both women wear purple, but Sarah’s is more vibrant than Maggie’s. The Doctor’s white coat, conspicuous on the small dark stage, hints that he may be a solid kind of angel.

Although rich in humour, the play never downplays the agonising stress of the transplant patient. ‘Maybe you’ll appreciate birthdays more when you don’t know how many you have left,’ Sarah says to Maggie. It’s not only about organ donation, however. Both women have made decisions based on expectations, only to be faced with the unexpected. It can happen to us all.

Runs until 6 November 2021 

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