Sixty-five miles is the distance between Sheffield and Hull. It is also the distance, door to door, between Pete and his estranged daughter Jenny. In an exciting collaboration between new writing producers Hull Truck Theatre and Paines Plough to celebrate the theatre’s fortieth anniversary this year, Matt Hartley’s striking new play focuses on one man’s need to recapture the life he lost a decade ago and find a new future with his daughter that may begin to ease the wounds of the past.
Those wounds are many and varied. When we meet Pete in the opening scene, he has just arrived at brother Rich’s house, having served a ten-year prison sentence that has left him entirely ignorant of the whereabouts of his ex-partner and daughter. Craige Els is striking as the unreadable, wayward brother Pete, and Alan Morrisey seems at first to be an appropriately docile and sympathetic counterpart. However, Sixty Five Miles defies straightforward categorisation and the similarities between the siblings become as stark – yet as ambiguous – as the differences.
Hartley captures perfectly the greyness of human life; the reality that our actions and decisions are neither black nor white. The world of Sixty Five Miles feels painfully close to life. Relationships are convoluted, and characters experience familiar crises of identity and morality. Pete’s quest for his daughter becomes intertwined with Richard’s own pursuit of his ex-girlfriend Lucy, sensitively portrayed by Katie West. In a play deeply concerned with paternity – or the lack of it – Casualty’s Ian Bleasdale makes a likeable appearance as Frank, the boys’ surrogate father figure. Bleasdale carries off with ease a role that requires huge tonal shifts as his attitude changes towards each brother, subtly matching his support of Rich with a wariness towards Pete that hints at the troubles of the past.
Frank becomes an effective device to tie the two men’s stories together. It is initially difficult to judge exactly whose story this is, but it becomes increasingly clear that we are following Pete’s journey: Richard’s actions are the result of Pete’s presence in his life. Els draws us into Pete’s world of cockiness and bravado, but allows us to glimpse the fear and self-doubt that lies beneath. A conversation on a park bench outside a school provides the basis for a scene of complete clarity in Hartley’s script, as Pete talks with schoolgirl Michelle (multi-roled convincingly by West), who pretends to be his daughter. The scene is as funny, unlikely and heart-breaking as life itself.
On occasion things feel slightly static but George Perrin’s direction adds colour to proceedings: although Pete berates Rich for his habit of sticking his hand down his trousers when nervous, as the play goes on, he develops a habit of shoving his own hand down his jeans pocket in a modified – and unintentionally humorous – version of his brother’s tic. Perrin utilises the space well, marking out the foundations of invisible walls and buildings within Amy Cook’s stark, multi-leveled stage to create a chocolate shop in Chesterfield as effectively as the Pennines near Sheffield. Cook’s design embraces Hull Truck’s stage, exposing and incorporating the mechanics beneath as though to symbolise the gaping emptiness of the past that hangs over the characters.
The episodic structure of the script is enhanced by Tim Deiling and Edward Lewis’s dramatic use of light and sound to punctuate shifts in time and mood between scenes, and ensuring the tension on and offstage remains palpable. While the laughs do not come fast and furious, Hartley’s comedy is well observed. Pete, for example, is bemused by X-Boxes and bluetooth devices, reacting to these technological advances the way anyone who had been segregated from society for the past 10 years might. Becci Gemmel, too, makes a comically familiar appearance as Maggie, creating laughs as she adds a new dynamic to Lucy and Rich’s awkward meeting in a chocolate shop. If the dialogue is at times a little too fragmented and reliant on interruption and unfinished sentences, this feels appropriate in a play that is as much about what is not said as what is. Language feels almost superfluous to requirements: West and Morrisey as Lucy and Rich achieve a level of intensity that bespeaks their troubled history.
The audience is kept guessing for much of the play with regards to what happened before we meet the characters. This directs attention towards the future, the moment when Pete may or may not find his daughter and become part of her life; the moment when Rich and Lucy may or may not be able to pursue a future together. For a play that feels at times so stark and bleak, it is also full of aspiration and hope, even when all seems lost. Much of what is said is rooted in the past, in things that have happened and affected the characters before we meet them, yet the play as a whole looks irrepressibly forward and moves unstoppably onwards as Pete and Richard are forced to face up to their futures.
Supported by a strong ensemble cast, Els and Morrisey establish with ease the many nuances of a relationship between two brothers who share an intimate connection, but struggle to bridge the years and the traumatic events that have separated them. A beautifully under-written play, Sixty Five Miles spends more time in the shade than the light, capturing both our inability to move on with our lives and the inevitability of the future.
Sixty Five Miles is playing at Hull Truck Theatre in association with Paines Plough. It is part of the theatre’s fortieth anniversary celebrations and plays in rep with Once Upon A Time in Wigan. Performances until 22 February. For more information and to book tickets, visit the theatre’s website here.
For more information about Paines Plough, visit the company’s website here.