There’s something elemental about Sparks. It’s all water and fire: two opposing forces meeting, like the two sisters at the play’s heart. Jess turns up on Sarah’s doorstep drenched, clasping a fishbowl in both hands. “Soaked,” she says. “All the way through. Think I’ve got. Got wet bones.” Sarah, when she allows herself to dream, dreams of the stars, burning fiercely in the sky. It’s the night before bonfire night, the country prepared to briefly ignite, but for now the water pours steadily down.
This is the tenor of Simon Longman’s play and Clive Judd’s production at the Old Red Lion: lyrical, dreamlike. Pared back to the basics, Sparks might not sound like much. A woman returns home to see the younger sister she abandoned twelve years previously, desperately attempting to turn back time. The domestic drama of the homecoming is hardly anything new. And yet … “transcend” is a word used too frequently and too carelessly, but it feels justified to say that Sparks transcends its premise, becoming much, much more than the sum of its parts.
There is, at first, a spikiness to the situation established by Longman and Judd. Sophie Steer’s Jess, vibrating with anxiety, vomits out a relentless flood of words. She can’t stop talking. Sarah, on the other hand, can barely wrench a single syllable from her throat. As played by Sally Hodgkiss, she’s frighteningly still, paralysed by shock. The older sister dances around the younger, her jittering energy spreading outwards in ripples to the audience. We’re tensed, waiting for the confrontation or revelation that dramatic convention dictates must be just around the corner.
But like Alice Birch’s Little Light – another dagger-sharp and devastating play about families and the passing of time – Sparks keeps us waiting. There’s a lot, in fact, that the two pieces have in common. Both take familiar, arguably even hackneyed dramatic set-ups and delicately subvert them, stretching the expectations of an audience almost to breaking point. And both revolve around the fragile relationship between two sisters, bound together by blood and memories yet ripped asunder by events.
In the case of Jess and Sarah, they are speaking across a gulf, one that only seems to widen for most of the first half. Jess is frantic, speaking to fill up the silence, while Sarah gives her little in return. One speaks in outpourings, the other in clipped half sentences. Yet, perhaps most surprisingly of all, it’s funny. Dark and desperate, yes, but funny all the same. The careful rhythm of the performances highlights the jarring humour of awful situations – that very British tendency to find something to laugh about even from the depths of despair.
Indeed, careful might describe the whole production. No choices feel thrown away. The style is naturalism shot through with memory and, at moments, a little bit of magic. Subtle (and one less subtle, but completely earned) shifts in Mark Dymock’s lighting take us back through time as both sisters gradually pick over the past; likewise Giles Thomas’s sound design, which you hardly notice until suddenly you realise it’s transported you. Jemima Robinson’s design, unfussy and realistic for the most part, uses the tiny but significant detail of peeled back wallpaper to suggest the tearing away of the years. Peeking through underneath, a Winnie the Pooh pattern – the one visual reference to Jess and Sarah’s fraught, shared childhood. And the swapping of the two central roles each night, a device that could be no more than a gimmick (albeit an impressive one), makes complete sense for a play that deals so much with the roles we fall into in a family.
In the end, what matters more than the discovery that we’re primed for – the unexpected twist, or the key to this strained sibling relationship – is simply these two characters in the same space together. I’m reminded, alongside Little Light, of Robert Holman: as in so many of his plays, Sparks is about the people and the conversation. Longman’s dialogue is exquisitely crafted, as accomplished in tense, terse exchanges as in meandering, almost poetic speeches. It doesn’t matter that little really happens to the two protagonists over the course of the play, because so much happens between them. It’s simple, perhaps, but startling nonetheless.
Photo: JKF Man.