In A Nutshell:
A devastatingly funny and human play that finds sublime humour in all the wrong places, and heartbreaking tenderness in all the right ones.
Liz, Jen, and Sara’s mother is in hospital: she has a brain tumour. As they come together in these unfortunate circumstances in the hospital waiting room at various stages of their mother’s care, their separate ways collide in an environment of anxiety and uncertainty. What reconciliation can they make in themselves with their mother’s possible death on the horizon? And when is it not ok to laugh?
Caro Dixey is a writer that I’ve had on my radar for some time, having been wowed by her short plays previously. Therefore it’s great to see her full-length writing faring just as well. What I’ve always loved about Dixey’s writing is just how upfrontly human it is. She manages to get right into the real heart and nature of personalities and the human condition, portraying them on stage in such a natural and effortless way.
Here, Dixey’s talent is finding a pitch-black humour alongside tender observations in everything from the mundane to the maudlin is supreme. It’s all executed with an incredible honesty, consistently feeling organic and never contrived. Humour wise, there are moments that are just out-rightly hilarious, even when they absolutely should not be, finding wonderful juxtaposition, absurdity, and bad jokes in sorrow and plight, playing intelligently into the understanding of an audience as an observer. But Dixey is able to dish out heartbreak just as readily using these same skills of observation and empathy: sometimes simultaneously alongside the jokes. At points, I found my jowls wobbling with laughter whilst my chin quivered with anguish. There is, in her unbelievably believable characters, a chime that can make you burst into tears as instantly as guffaw with laughter. It all stems from a savage embrace of truth and photographic considerations of human life that very few playwrights offer.
The writing is also technically brilliant, especially in using the differences in personalities of characters to subtly tease out plot and back-story form their counterparts, and well placed red herrings and ambiguities to keep you intrigued and unknowing. The pacing never drags across the play’s 90 minutes; no scene feels better panned out or lack lustre to any other. It only suffers in that, being flung from one polar feeling to another at break-neck speed, you want the play to end sooner just because you’re mentally exhausted. Dixey’s toying with the audiences sensibilities is an emotional marathon that’s just as elating as it is heartbreaking. But it’s you that flags, not the play.
Direction and Production
Sophie Moniram is a director that astutely understands Dixey’s text. Every effort has been made to make the action feel as bone-fide as the characters. She’s not afraid of making long awkward silences just that, or have people talk over each other just like they would in real life. Some of this is even employed theatrically to create a sense of tension and drama as well as a sense of reality. But most importantly, Moniram allows the cast as much time as they need to be their characters, never feeling that they’ve not been given enough space to be who they are, or cutting short what they are doing.
Henry Regan and Dixey’s production is also superlative. The set is done well enough to easily evoke a hospital waiting room, as well as quickly become the living room of the sisters’ mother’s house. But it’s the fact that it’s awash with very deliberate minutia that really is its coup de grace. Everything from the wonky wall clock to the quiet significance of the choice of Salvador Dali painting, has a place and a role even if it looks like mere dressing at first.
Dixey and Moniram could not have found a better cast for this production, with every member being fantastic. Even Pauline Menear’s short appearance as Patient is smoothly and wonderfully carried out. But it’s the three leads that are really phenomenal. It’s a real surprise when you find out that Sara Winn playing Liz, Sophie Spreadbury playing Jen, and Charlie Blackwood playing Sarah aren’t actually real life sisters. This isn’t just because they look vaguely like they could be related, but because they manage to forge an astonishing sense of on-stage sisterhood among their chemistry. They each organically embrace their characters to create performances that are completely flawless, connecting with each of their co-star’s on-stage personalities as much as they do their own.
An astonishing piece of new writing that is perfectly executed. Dixey has proven once again that’s she’s a formidable playwright and producer in creating one of the most brutally uplifting and joyously upsetting shows of this year.
The Five Stages of Waiting plays at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London, WC2H 9NP, until 9 August 2014 as part of the Camden Fringe Festival. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). To book, visit http://tristanbatestheatre.co.uk. To find out more about the Camden Fringe Festival, visit www.camdenfringe.com.