Little Light, written by Alice Birch, had a buzz around it from the moment I entered the auditorium. With Birch’s plays being produced by extraordinary theatres like the Royal Court and now the influential Orange Tree Theatre, there was a huge excitement about what was to come from this world première.
Set in a remote house by the sea, the entire play takes place around a dining room table. On this particularly important day, a ritualistic lunch takes place in which a sister’s strenuous relationship forces the characters to repeatedly remember stories from the past. But for what reason?
Technically this piece is a domestic drama, but like no other I have seen before. The moments of tension created in this destructive play are almost unbearable. Birch leaves most of the characters’ sentences unfinished and relentlessly allows no break for explanation until the very end of the play. For an audience this is thrilling, making us constantly try to untangle what has brought about this hypersensitive situation. I found myself on the edge of my seat, thinking “please tell me what’s caused this or I’m going to burst!”
Direction by David Mercatali, the associate director of the Southwark Playhouse, makes this play an impeccable combination of writer and director working in harmony. Mercatali picks up on the reality of the play and makes it dynamic. There isn’t a single lost moment, lack of focus or idea that doesn’t advance the play.
The theme of water is extremely present in the piece, from the soundscapes of the sea to the dripping wet actors, and most of all the waves of consciousness created by the hypnotic monologues within the piece. The sound design by Max Pappenheim plays a crucial role in this production by linking scenes flawlessly and creating such an engulfing atmosphere that you almost feel the rain. The energy and focus of the cast are phenomenal: the nature of Birch’s writing requires numerous unfinished, suspended and sharp thoughts, all written in a manner in which the actors could not let a moment slip. With quick-witted retorts and dry humour, the actors have to be completely in control at all times. Portraying control to the optimum is Paul Rattray. His character Teddy goes from destructively knocking down a staircase in the first moments of the play, remaining mysterious and dangerous throughout the piece, to a wonderful explosion of heartbreak that makes you weep for him. With Rattray you can always see something else is lying underneath that is difficult to control, and that is extremely exciting.
Things really start to get volatile when Yolanda Kettle (who plays Clarissa) bursts in, heavily pregnant and dripping wet, full of exasperation and complexity. With her sensitive and honest depiction of this clearly rattled character, she manages to pull the family together. Yet at the centre of this devastation is Alison, played by Lorna Brown. Brown carries a torturous tension, in Alison’s insistence of adhering to this ritual that the family has created. She seethes with anger and pain, yet manages to cover it with sharp humour and grace. Paul Hickey plays Simon, the unwelcome boyfriend of Alison’s younger sister Clarissa. Hickey brings light and warmth to the scenes with his wit and endurance of the situation; he is the audience’s relief and a pleasure to watch.
The play is dangerous; by that I mean at points I was actually unsure what would happen. It’s becoming increasingly rare to watch a play nowadays and not be three steps ahead, but with Little Light I truly had no idea what could happen next. It got me gagging at points, laughing out loud and flinching.
I am amazed this is one of Birch’s first pieces of writing, as it’s almost perfect. The themes she develops in Little Light have continued in most of her work that has followed, and I predict this play will be one that people will study in the future. She has her own distinct style and you can pick her writing out of the crowd, just like you can notice the difference between a guitar being played and a guitar being played by Jimi Hendrix.
Little Light is playing until 7 March. For more information and tickets (including £10 tickets for under 30s Tuesday-Thursday), see the Orange Tree Theatre website. Photo by Richard Davenport.