It can be surprisingly tough to write a review when a show is as brilliant as Anders Lustgarten’s latest play, Lampedusa. Running at the Soho Theatre’s intimate Upstairs space, Lampedusa is simply a great play and production. To lavish it with fawning superlatives would only undermine and under-serve its quiet brilliance. Everything about the production, from the direction, to the design and performances, not to mention the writing, is a success. Really, it’s a piece that deserves more than any pithy review can give: it needs to be seen and experienced.
Lustgarten’s work never fails to pack a punch, from Black Jesus at the Finborough Theatre in 2013, to his work at the Royal Court and beyond. Lampedusa is no different, focusing on the lives of two fascinating characters, Denise (Louise Mai Newberry), and Stefano (Ferdy Roberts). The former is a debt collector for a payday loans company with an unwell mother, dependent on the British welfare system; the latter, an Italian coastguard tasked with rescuing drowned victims from the frequent migrant boats that sink before they can reach shore. Through interweaving monologues, the pair explores what it is like to be tasked with an emotionally-wearing job in austerity Europe, where it’s not just money running short, but hope.
Newberry and Roberts’s performances are compelling: both are talented and engaging storytellers who flit from wit to pathos effortlessly, painting the detail of their respective worlds with striking clarity for the audience. Lucy Osborne’s design, together with Elliot Griggs’s lighting and Isobel Waller Bridge’s sound deserve special mention for creating a unique atmosphere, and – without giving too much away – using utterly beautiful simplicity to depict Stefano’s journey out to sea towards the play’s climax.
Steve Atkinson’s direction only proves that great storytelling is all you need to make great theatre: there are no frills or fancy ideas, just perfectly executed simplicity. His work allows for nuance, complexity and intrigue, letting the story and characters shine through without distraction or unnecessary pomp. This means that by the end of the story, Lustgarten’s message is quietly but effectively delivered: that what can and must unite us all as humans is kindness, if we’d only allow it into our lives.
Lampedusa sets the bar for political playwriting and storytelling high. Go and see it.
Lampedusa is playing at the Soho Theatre until 26 April. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website. Photo by Jonny Birch.