In St James’ park, almost a year ago, I reviewed a version of How to Hug where the pandemic was easing into a summer lul. I could not have imagined that following a brutal winter lockdown, I would return to see it again. The process of development is evident in how these creatives have smoothed out a one-on-one immersive experience into a one-woman show with a full audience. (I did, however, miss the bright yellow balloon which guided me to Georgia over St James’ Park bridge and I long for its return.)
A multicoloured shoebox dotted with yellow stars sits centrestage in the Studio of the Vaults. The space is muggy after a steaming hot day but any darkness evaporates as “Let’s Dance to Joy Division,” by the Wombats blasts through the studio. I am always fond of a hearty, “Fuck” as the opening line and Georgia Figgis owns it as she bursts onstage. The morbid humour of the play surrounds a dead dog in a shoebox which strikes a deep contrast to the aesthetics of bright colours and overalls.
Georgia is a bundle of social anxiety spun into a giggly introvert. She marvels at the wonders of the moon and interacts with the trains that shoot above our heads from London Waterloo. I get goosebumps as Figgis describes a Year 7 disco to “Angels,” by Robbie Williams and remarks, “Awful age 11.” There’s even a segment of socially distanced audience interaction onstage which is immensely refreshing.
We’re watching mid-pandemic theatre which is developing for a post-pandemic climate and the sense of alienation this piece creates is resonant. As warm and charming as Georgia is, she is venting her loneliness to a masked crowd who read her cries for emotional intimacy. It makes us question the temporality of our friends, wondering who could abandon us when things get tough and, “What if we’re not meant to keep people?”
Some of the narrative is left unturned, and perhaps that’s down to the short thirty minute timeframe. Mr Snuggles the dog remains missing but our beloved Georgia is completely unveiled and she’s not all she seems. She’s a distinctly corrupt character as she scams a grieving gentleman for company, leeching off his pain to combat her own loneliness. I think there’s space for more of a gut-wrenching turn when we realise we have been made to root for something so abhorrent.
How to Hug is one of those pieces which is simultaneously about everything and nothing. It’s a gorgeously performed dialogue within the epidemic of loneliness following a global pandemic. As this is a second stage of development, it is exciting to think what will come next for this play and how it will continue to evolve.
How to Hug is played at The Vaults on the 11 June 2021. For more information, see The Vaults Festival online.