Review: Meet Me at Dawn, Arcola Theatre

I’m in two minds about Meet Me At Dawn. I should say first that both actors, Jessica Hardwick and Marianne Oldham, are fantastic. Although it’s only an hour long, the emotional journey in this piece feels far longer, and they navigate some far from smooth waters with intelligence and grace.

In a way, the experience of watching this play feels more like sitting through two sequential pieces than just the one. It would be hard to put a finger on the precise moment where one ends and the other begins, but the emotional shift would be hard to miss, as would the developing sense of experimentalism with the form and story. As this might suggest, the second section seems so much stronger than the first – I almost wonder if the entire thing could benefit from the plot being in quite a different sequence. 

Following the revelation at the end that, (spoiler) like Orpheus and Eurydice, Robyn has followed Helen into the afterlife to spend a final day with her, it’s as if the whole piece has been injected with adrenaline. The number of doors opened by the realisation that they’re not lost, they’re not anywhere at all, is remarkable, and it’s sad that more time isn’t spent on them. For example, at one point Helen is wracked with a terror that she may have to experience her own brutal death again at the end of the Robyn’s wished-for day. To me, that dilemma creates enough emotion for a whole other play in its own right. The ethics of the acceptability of causing a loved one pain in order to postpone losing them are complex and emotive, to the extent that confining them to a few lines feels like a shame.

While the Big Twist could have come substantially earlier, I love the hints of a magical realism that are sprinkled throughout. From the extreme example of multiple worlds existing in some kind of chorus, right down to a moth that’s dry when it should by all accounts be wet, there are some lovely little traces of a world that’s not quite as it should be.

Like the script, the set design starts to show its real potential later on. The shifting colours are an interesting backdrop, but the addition of silhouetted raindrop patterns and the firelit culmination of the play are definitely the most effective moments. Similarly, Zinnie Harris’ language often has a gorgeous texture to it, but it doesn’t quite feel sustained all the way through.

I love the concept here – I love the acting, and I love the language. I can’t help but feel, however, that it can afford to take more of a risk with its angle on the story, and the reflections those risks could lead to.

Meet Me At Dawn is playing the Arcola Theatre until 9 November. For more information and tickets, visit the Arcola Theatre website.