Review of Too Much World At Once at HOME, Manchester.
At the heart of Too Much World At Once is a family struggling to communicate with one another, in a world edging ever closer to catastrophe.
It is Noble’s fifteenth birthday, and he’s wrestling with his feelings. He is missing his older sister Cleo who is working on a remote Antarctic island, where she is carrying out a scientific study of the bird population.
Despite his mother Fiona’s concern, he is unable to share his feelings with her – and their relationship is difficult. A friendship with Ellis, a new boy at school, unexpectedly provides space for him to open up.
At this point, if you are thinking that Billie Collins’ play sounds rather ordinary, think again. Clawing away inside Noble is an urge to fly – and he is suddenly able to sprout wings and take to the skies.
Even before that transformation, Collins’ characters exist in a place that is recognisably of this world, and yet not quite. There are kinks in her creation, subtle folds.
Conversations might be momentarily interrupted by text alerts on occasion, but Noble, Ellis, Cleo and Fiona will constantly look up at the skies, or out to the horizon – their gaze never once looks down distractedly at a handheld screen.
Books are held tight, comfort is found in writing down thoughts, and poetry is cherished and shared.
The rural setting allows the sound of birdsong to be heard more clearly, and nature is never far away – starlings explode from rafters overhead, a fox interrupts a joyful dance.
That easy connection with the natural world serves to emphasise what is in danger of being lost, and the play is strewn with portents of a precarious future.
“The world will not be kind to us, because we haven’t given it reason to be” says Cleo despairingly. Birds vanish mysteriously from the island where she is based. On the other side of the world, rivers burst their banks, roads are blocked, and the family home is subsiding.
Richly poetic, Collins’ writing takes its audience on a journey of the imagination, but it also surges forward. There’s urgency in its rhythms. Frequently, the play’s four voices flock together – narrating, energising, prophesying – a tight, all-knowing Greek chorus.
Noble is not the only person suddenly pulled skyward. Collins paints an alarming picture of thousands of young people taking flight, no longer able to contemplate any future for themselves on a planet where climate extremes and species extinction are escalating.
A ring of wooden shards hangs over the stage, drawing the eye up, and designer Katie Scott’s set speaks of a world in flux. The circular timber platform upon which the characters interact, could be a raft adrift, and the jumbled assortment of drawers, crates and personal belongings have the air of having been salvaged from a shipwreck – or might it all just be kindling for a coming conflagration?
Collins’ well-drawn characters are brought vividly to life by the cast. As Noble, Paddy Stafford flits convincingly from adolescent restlessness to pained agitation. His interaction with chirpy good-natured Ellis lifts his mood, and Ewan Grant’s Ellis is the play’s secret weapon – an irrepressible ray of sunshine amidst the gathering storm.
Alexandra Mathie deftly conveys Fiona’s concerned yet exasperated attempts to engage with her teenage son. There is also an interesting dimension to the relationship between her and Cleo (Evie Hargreaves) – with hints of the vicarious pleasure she takes in Cleo’s career success, and reflections on the sacrifices she had to make to balance motherhood with work.
Adam Quayle’s production understandably foregrounds the writing – however, considering how ambitious Collins’ play is, the staging occasionally feels a touch too pedestrian.
For all that, Too Much World At Once powerfully shapeshifts and soars – seamlessly accommodating a touching and relatable coming-of-age story within a strikingly visionary exploration of the consequences of climate change.
Performance seen on 6 March 2023.
Too Much World At Once runs at HOME from 3 March 2023 to 11 March 2023. Then touring at various venues until 22 April 2023.
Images by Chris Payne.