Ailís Ní Ríain’s new play Desolate Heaven takes its audience for quite a ride in its debut at Theatre 503. Described as “a story of falling in love for the first time and a story about running away, a story about growing up too soon and about why love can sometimes be dangerous,” Desolate Heaven is a dynamic piece that struggles in its opening but is both thrilling and haunting by its conclusion.
When the play opens, it takes a few minutes to find its footing. When fiery and fearless 14-year-old Orlaith (Carla Langley) meets meek and impressionable 13-year-old Sive (Evelyn Lockley), the chemistry between the pair is undeniable. But then the play quickly jumps from organic dialogue to confusing, overlapping scenes in which the girls both act out the roles of their parents in simultaneous one-person dialogues while narrating their own inner monologues. In its first 15 minutes, the play seems confused about its own style – and leaves the audience fearing that the next hour and a half will be as disjointed as the multiple personalities the two girls just displayed. Luckily, however, the play quickly finds its flow and makes up for lost time, providing a compelling and unpredictable narrative when the two girls run away together.
After they set off, leaving their overly dependent and burdensome parents behind, Brid Brennan (a Tony Award Winner for her previous work in Dancing at Lughnasa) appears to help the girls along throughout different stages of their journey – first as a farmer, then a lorry driver and finally as a butcher. Her three characters are entertaining and intentionally puzzling, adding a mysterious element of fantasy as each character takes part in telling a Yeats story to the girls before bed on separate nights.
All three actresses are phenomenal in their demanding roles. Brid Brennan successfully salvages the moments in the play that could have easily been lost to abstraction, providing undoubtedly warm and loveable qualities to her eerily mystical characters. Evelyn Lockley is sweet and sincere as Sive, constantly experiencing a roller coaster of emotions that swerves between excitement, thrill and fear. Carla Langley reveals the perfect amount of hidden vulnerability in the stubborn and edgy Orlaith, allowing her headstrong façade to sometimes get betrayed by the unshed tears that build up in her frustrated eyes.
Set design by James Perkins is aesthetically pleasing, simple and perfectly adaptable, and Paul Robinson’s tight direction makes effective use of the levels it provides. While the storytelling in Ailís Ní Ríain’s play sometimes dances on the edge of becoming distractingly bizarre, this production overwhelmingly succeeds at providing a narrative that is both unique and completely captivating once it gets past its bumpy start.
Desolate Heaven is confusing and fascinating, tender and violent, honest and mystical. There’s a lot to take in and its conclusion really sticks with you. While it’s not consistently flawless, the play’s strongest moments are delivered with a force that is rarely matched on any London stage, making for a worthwhile and enthralling evening.
Desolate Heaven plays at Theatre 503 until 2 March 2013. For more information and to book tickets, visit Theatre 503’s website.