Throughout almost all of Sunnymead Court’s swift one hour run time, I couldn’t stop smiling. It is joyous.
An unconventional girl-meets-girl love story, the play follows two women who fall for each other from their balconies during London’s first coronavirus lockdown. Gemma Lawrence, who penned the piece, plays Marie, a reclusive copywriter who feels like her body is disintegrating from lack of use, while Sasha Frost balances her out as Stella, a vibrant young woman who has had to return to living with her mother, who is on a ventilator. Infused with life, the plot touches on feelings of total isolation, the painful experience of returning to being closeted in a childhood bedroom, and events of 2020 such as the George Floyd case. In spite of its topical nature, however, Sunnymead Court never gets too dark, or sinks too deep into the misery of lockdown: Lawrence’s writing is buoyant.
The play opens with Marie (Lawrence) on her balcony, describing the sounds of her estate. In the Arcola’s outside space, the scene is visceral: we too can hear the sounds of London rushing past, as she speaks over football cheers, car horns, and police sirens. This makes the play feel almost like an immersive experience: I’ve never seen a show so suited to its venue.
The connection between actors, venue, and audience is tangible: at any given moment I could look out at the rest of the audience and see enraptured faces and warm grins. Sasha Frost as Stella makes eye contact with us throughout; even as someone who squirms at the very prospect of interactive theatre, I was able to look her in the eye and feel spoken to, engaged with, welcomed.
Frost’s performance fizzes: her infectious energy fills the space from start to finish. Lawrence meanwhile ekes every ounce of comedy out of her sharp, witty script, painting a very real portrait of a relatably awkward and solitary young woman. The dialogue is consistently laugh-out-loud funny: stand-out moments include Marie’s description of the stresses of picking the perfect mug to take to uni — needing to come across as exactly the right level of cool. The performance also benefits hugely from its use of music and dance: the two women dance in the hail to ‘Fantastic Man’ by William Onyeabor — a weird choice, by the characters’ own admission, but the song works perfectly. Other musical moments include Tom Jones’ ‘It’s Not Unusual’ and a wonderful ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ dance sequence, after which the whole audience applauded.
The set and lighting are minimal, but used well: the actors operate a soundboard to change the lighting and music and move around two chairs as the only set pieces. This creates a sense of controlling one’s own world, reminiscent of the experience of lockdown. Mostly, though, it serves to prove the strength of the writing: elaborate sets and conceptual direction would have taken away from the intimacy of the narrative. Really, Dalston is the set: the sounds of the city are what bring the piece to life. Commendation must go to director James Hillier for letting the characters speak for themselves.
We theatre lovers seem to be pretty much in agreement that the last thing we want emerging from the past year is plays about lockdown; Sunnymead Court deserves to be an exception. It speaks not only to our shared experiences of isolation, but to the joy of human connection that we’re oh so ready to regain. I can’t recommend it enough.
Sunnymead Court is playing the Arcola Theatre until 4 July, before embarking on a tour. For more information and tickets, see Arcola Theatre online.