Tom Wells’ Big Big Sky at Hampstead Theatre brings a more rural pace to the city’s returning theatrical nightlife. As Angie goes about running her seasonal café for locals and tourists, the closing hours seem to be reserved for family moments between her waitress Lauren, and Lauren’s Dad Dennis. Throw into the mix a new lodger that Dennis has found to fill Lauren’s newly vacated childhood bedroom, there is plenty going on to keep the doors of the café from closing too soon.
True to its name, Big Big Sky turns the intimate Downstairs space of Hampstead Theatre into a quaint café, inspired by the sprawling landscape of the Yorkshire seaside which surrounds it. The vividness of the set, incorporating sand and sky, curves like the waves lapping at the shore.
Almost as if it is a living set, the design by Bob Bailey fills every inch of the space with life, from sounds of the cast washing pots and pans off stage to the intricate choreography of cups, saucers, and kettles about the café tables. What’s more, the cast are totally at ease within these walls, with a great deal of time clearly devoted to making their motions seem natural amongst such a casual setting – not discovered in the moment but carried out by instinct. Sadly, whilst there is a fluidity to the set and its action, this is not fully matched by the lighting design by Jai Morjaria which feels fairly flat and misses countless opportunities to reflect the changing season and the accompanying tone of the scenes.
Director Tessa Walker creates the perfect atmosphere for this charming setting, and for a while seems to develop a perfect dynamic amongst the characters – quick wit fires across the stage like pistons, and comedic energy carries us through most of the first half of the show. However, as we enter the later portion of the play the pace drops and the energy fizzles, seeming somewhat under-rehearsed and holding very little weight to convey the gravitas of the subject matter at hand.
This may be in part due to the text, which seems to play out more like a scaled back soap opera at times, never truly tackling the grit of the characters’ complexity but rather trying to rush it in the final moments. The characters also seem to be devoid of much complexity, their issues washing away as quickly as footprints on the sand.
All this aside, Wells’ play manages to avoid exposition throughout, and captures an interesting juxtaposition between the dated nature of its setting and themes and more modern attitudes and context. While mostly unimportant on the surface, the majority of the play utilises subtext in a gentle way, slowly revealing the nature of their relationships as the scenes unfold. I also love the way that Wells alters his writing between the characters to give them each their own verbal cues; Angie often searches for her words, Dennis mutters through his, Ed rambles on, and Lauren is clear and direct.
With a thoroughly enjoyable cast comprising of Jennifer Daley, Jessica Jolleys, Sam Newton, and Matt Sutton, Big Big Sky doesn’t feel like an uninteresting watch, but it equally doesn’t feel important either. It sadly feels lost in itself, unsure of what it wants to convey, drifting between drama and documentary, and losing its comedy far too soon.
Big Big Sky is now playing at Hampstead Theatre until 11 September. For more information and to book tickets, visit Hampstead Theatre’s website.