Royal Exchange, Manchester.
29 October 2019.
Life ends. Death comes. Light falls.
As Christine collapses to the floor in the drinks aisle of the Co-op on Stockport’s Heaton Moor Road, she recalls details from her life as if they are flashing before her eyes. At that moment too, she shares with the audience her deep desire to know where her children are.
That wish. so pure and understandable, is granted in Simon Stephens’ new play. And so, largely unnoticed, except by us, Christine slips briefly into the lives of her close family. Jess, her eldest child, is just about to embark on a new relationship, while her younger daughter Ashe is struggling to cope with a young baby and a difficult ex-partner. Up in Durham, her son Stephen is catching up with his boyfriend, while her husband is indulging in an awkward threesome on a four-poster bed in Doncaster.
The whole idea of it, a dying woman able to see her family one last time, could strain credulity, but it doesn’t. The device, the conceit, whatever you want to call it, is used so subtly, woven into the narrative with the lightest of touches, that it feels like the most natural thing in the world.
One by one, family members appear. Information about them and their lives is deliberately drip-fed. The story-telling is fragmented and increasingly intense as conversations cut across each other and scenes chop into one another. It’s as if a glitch of some sort is revealing the invisible threads that entangle the family members embroiled in all these separate events, at different locations but taking place at exactly the same time.
Although it is propelled forward by the death of a wife and mother, Light Falls is not a play about grief. Most of what we see takes place before news of Christine’s death is known to each of her family. Their lives are messy, in flux and about to change further. Stephens’ dialogue reveals a family whose members are cautious, careful with their trust, and often seeking reassurance. Living with Christine’s alcoholism appears to have had a deep impact on them all but they’ve also been left shaken by another family member’s recent suicide attempt.
Naomi Dawson’s warmly-lit wood-panelled performance space slices a solid chunk out of the Royal Exchange’s auditorium as its stepped backdrop heads up (heavenward?) into the first gallery. The panelled surfaces, devoid of any distracting clutter, create exposing sightlines and acoustics – small voices in a large open space. It’s not that words can’t be heard clearly, the staging just seems to add a layer of vulnerability to the performances, something that’s accentuated by subtle echoes in the sound design.
Stephens’ text is beautifully brought to life by the cast. Most especially by Carla Henry and Katie West, two actors with previous experience of both Stephens’ work and the Exchange’s stage. Henry infuses Bernard’s mistress Michaela with warmth and generosity, while, as Ashe, West is all exposed emotions and angry frustration. In her professional debut, Mercedes Assad is wonderfully funny as the plain-speaking passion-killing participant in an extra-marital threesome.
Light Falls lays claim to being an allegory for the North, and the liberal sprinkling of Jarvis Cocker’s specially-written Hymn of the North throughout reinforces that notion. However, the North is a complex, diverse and ever-evolving entity, and so are the people who live there. The production’s scattering of place names, some local accents and the symbolic simulation of wet weather isn’t sufficient to create an authentic sense of place. If anything it all feels rootless, though not to the detriment of the play, effortlessly floating free of its designated location to become a more universal meditation on family, love and survival.
A line in Cocker’s hymn, “please stay in touch with me in this contactless society“, echoes Christine’s feelings of being unseen by others as she heads to the local shop “in a high street like this, in a town like this“, unaware of what will befall her. All those people around her distracted by screens, busy with their own concerns or just uninterested in the world around them. She, however, notices them. Christine’s final journey and her family’s coming together to remember her, serve as a tender yet admirably unsentimental reminder of the transformative power of human connection.
“The music’s stopped. The credits are rolling. Hold my hand“.
Images by Manuel Harlan