Little Light, Orange Tree Theatre

Cast : Lorna Brown (Alice) Paul Rattray (Teddy) Yolanda Kettle (Clarissa) Paul Hickey (Simon)

Originally written for Exeunt.

Families are made from memories. Soft-focus, hard-edged, ossified by nostalgia. Collections of human beings linked by little more than blood and shared history reconstitute themselves through telling, unfurling mothballed reminiscences over the festive detritus of wine glasses and chocolate boxes. Remember the time your uncle got drunk at that wedding. Remember when granny mixed up the pies for dinner. Remember that year little Catherine sang the “Twelve Days of Christmas” for everyone. With all the actions.

In Little Light, those memories are painfully loaded, groaning under the weight of stultified tradition and unspoken grief. In a house by the sea, a couple make careful preparations for a once-a-year ritual of remembering. Teddy is desperate to let in the light, ripping down staircases and smashing through walls, while Alison clings stubbornly to the shadows. When her younger sister Clarissa arrives, heavily pregnant and with boyfriend unexpectedly in tow, the strange ceremony is ready to begin. But this year it’s not going to plan.

Alice Birch’s play – her first, though not performed before now – is an extended exercise in tension-building. On the evening I see the production I’ve come straight from a screening of Whiplash, which had me white-knuckled throughout its 90 minutes of sweat, blood and cymbals. What writer/director Damien Chazelle does with drumming, Little Light does with the dinner party. It’s a format freighted with dramatic history, but in the hands of Birch, director David Mercatali and the excellent cast of four it feels fresh, fleet-footed and horribly nerve-fraying.

As Teddy, Alison, Clarissa and Simon clink glasses and break bread, they commence a routine that is at once familiar and unsettling. All the codes of a shared family language are there: the repeated anecdotes, the practiced looks, the choreographed passing of dishes and wine bottles. But there’s something far more odd and sinister lurking beneath the repetition. Stories are told with blank eyes and laughs jump cheerlessly from strained throats. Remembrances are aimed like daggers under the ribs; a matted lump of hair turns up in someone’s fish pie.

The effect is one of discomfort tinged with horror. Imagine the feeling of anticipatory dread in a scary film: that extended moment of sickening tension just before you know something bad is about to happen. Now imagine that stretched out across more than an hour. Because Birch and Mercatali manage to leave us groping around in the dark, keeping everything in the gloom until the final minutes. The rehearsed interactions of the characters clearly mean something of horrible importance to them, but we are robbed of the means to decipher them, forced instead to remain puzzled and on edge.

While it may not have the same kind of breathless, rule-breaking, fuck-you audacity as Birch’s searing Revolt. She said. Revolt again, Little Light still manages to repeatedly trip an audience’s expectations, deploying the same playfully serious manipulation of form. I was reminded briefly of Martin Crimp’s In the Republic of Happiness, which takes an Ayckbourne-esque domestic set-up and mercilessly rips it apart at the seams, except Birch’s unnerving dinner party gnaws at its own format from within. What looks familiar enough at first glance turns out to be chewing on something a lot more grisly.

The performances, too, keep us guessing. As Alison, Lorna Brown is distant, icy and cruel, until suddenly she’s not. Yolanda Kettle’s Clarissa gulps down the bitter medicine she’s fed by her older sister, the implicit shades of guilt, resentment and reluctant loyalty in her brittle acceptance of the situation suggesting the jagged edges of so many sibling relationships, while Paul Hickey makes an appropriately disoriented newcomer as her boyfriend Simon. And Paul Rattray’s Teddy, hands quivering at his sides, seems forever on the brink of explosion or collapse.

Finally, the play too has to either erupt or crumble with the weight of its building, pervasive menace. It turns out to do a little bit of both. But even climax and catharsis do not unfold as we might expect, offering far more lyricism and far less resolution than the domestic dramas that Little Light takes its lead from. The scab that Birch picks at might finally break loose but, as in so many families, the wound remains open.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Pomona, Orange Tree Theatre

Pomona- Zeppo (Guy Rhys) and Keaton (Sarah Middleton)

Alistair McDowall has written an Escher staircase of a play. Or perhaps a spiral, looping around to almost but not quite the same point. Or perhaps it’s the M60 ring road at night, circling the city under the orange glow of the streetlights. Round and round.

Pomona is a nightmare. A thriller. A game. A mystery. A trip down the rabbit hole. A journey into the desert of the real.

Ollie is looking for her sister. She hopes to find her in Pomona – a desolate concrete wasteland just minutes from the centre of Manchester, a yawning void at the heart of the city. This place is also at the heart of McDowall’s tangled plot, the shadowy secret it hides offering the answer – or at least an answer – to his characters’ fearful questioning. Whether they want to see it, however, is another matter.

Layered on top of and bleeding into the real Pomona and the horrors it contains is another world, one of imagination and gameplay. Somewhere else in the city, sweetly enthusiastic nerd Charlie has found an unlikely friend in Keaton, the mysterious girl who joins in with the game of his own invention. Only the game has terrifying echoes of reality. Or is it the other way round?

Both McDowall’s writing and Ned Bennett’s adrenalin-pumped production are soaked in popular culture, further blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Indiana Jones. H. P. Lovecraft. Dungeons and Dragons. Horror movies and internet detritus. Chicken nuggets. It’s all distraction, all surface, as fleeting as the flash of the lights that flicker on and off between scenes.

This is theatre that worms its way inside the 21st-century state of mind, nestling itself amid internet memes and junk food. Pomona depicts a world where we can find out anything at the swipe of a finger. Information is endless, as one character articulates, so we have to choose. And if we choose what to know, then we also choose what not to know.

Pomona is about what we choose not to know. It is a play populated by all the things that lurk beneath: the monsters under the bed, the ghosts hiding in the shadows, and the murky, underground world that we all wilfully ignore. The dark, rising tide of urban myths. 

Everything about Bennett’s production heightens the lingering sense of unease. In designer Georgia Lowe’s sunken playing space, transforming (together with Elliot Grigg’s eerie lighting) the Orange Tree Theatre into a grimy subterranean landscape, the inhabitants of McDowall’s play scrabble around in the gutter, sucked inexorably towards the drain at its centre. There is no escape.

The characters, meanwhile, all have hints of the uncanny. Guy Rhys’ Zeppo, a man with an approach of studied ignorance towards the shady figures he deals with, leaps out of the show with cartoon-like detail, stealing the first scene with his lengthy, animated retelling of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ollie, played by the shape-shifting Nadia Clifford, seems not to be what she first appears. Even endearing, innocuous Charlie, getting most of the laughs in the capable hands of Sam Swann, has a murkier aspect. And most unsettling of all is Sarah Middleton’s precise, controlled Keaton – sometime girl, sometime monster.

But the terrifying thing is not the fiction, not the squid-headed creatures from the deep. The truly monstrous side of Pomona is to be found in the ugly, urgent truth its many tentacles prod at. As Zeppo puts it, “you go deep enough, you’ll find all this stuff, the detritus of our lives, it’s all built on this foundation of pain and shit and suffering”. That foundation usually sits, festering, at the edges of our consciousness; McDowall drags it to the centre. And when we find ourselves inside the game once again, there is a queasy feeling that this is a container for the all the things we can’t quite look in the eye. We need places to dump all the nastiness, places like Pomona.

We’re back to where we began. But wait – not quite. Is this game or reality now? Where are we? Haven’t we been here before?

Round and round. Round and round.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.