‘It’s raining in the Midlands. Again. It won’t stop.’ Isobel Jacob introduces us to Sparks by Simon Longman, Pitch Productions’ Michaelmas show.
It’s raining in the Midlands. Again. It won’t stop. Someone’s standing in it. They’re shivering. They’re cold. They’re waiting for someone they haven’t seen for a very long time. They’ve got a rucksack full of alcohol. And a fish.
Sisters, Sarah and Jess, meet again after twelve years apart and, as their separate stories are gradually teased out, the audience sees a hidden web of heartbreak, grief, loss and loneliness. As the characters get progressively more intoxicated, we start to piece together their past through Longman’s distinctly hazy, haunting dialogue.
I was so excited that Pitch Productions gave me the opportunity to put on Sparks, mainly because I knew it would take Durham by storm. In some ways, this is the classic edgy student theatre drama, a two-hander where the isolated, lonely characters meet again after a long time apart and gradually uncover secrets about each other – and themselves – with the help of a lot of alcohol and the odd fishbowl thrown in. At the same time, in the densely-populated DST scene, I haven’t seen anything quite like Sparks. Specifically, I haven’t seen a female relationship quite like that of Sarah and Jess. They are damaged and complex, haunted by trauma in their childhood, but presented as so much more interesting than just that. Just like in real life, they protect themselves and pretend they’re okay. They are cryptic, guarded and ridiculously indirect, and they frequently laugh at themselves. They are some of the most vulnerable characters I’ve ever seen onstage, simply because they are so naturalistic and spend so little time actually talking about their problems.
Oh, and there’s no romance. We’ve seen enough of that in Durham.
Casting Athena Tzallas and Gayaneh Vlieghe was probably the best decision I’ve ever made. Eliza Jones (Assistant Director) and I knew they were extremely talented and suited their individual roles well, but we could not have predicted the chemistry the pair would have. Every rehearsal I have been blown away by how naturally they relax into the dialogue together, and to see their sisterhood, on and offstage, grow throughout the process has been heartwarming. It is hard to believe they met for the first time at auditions.
We have spent a lot of time just talking in rehearsals (maybe a little too much at times, whoops!); this has been something I have very consciously allowed to happen. So much of Sparks relies upon not only understanding the plot and the seemingly endless open-ended questions concerning the two sisters, but also understanding the constantly changing state of both their minds. Longman’s dialogue is so subtle, so secretive even, that the biggest challenge in staging the play is finding a route out of the maze of emotions, intentions and motivations that are woven together. Unlike other plays I’ve worked on, this has not been about conveying a ‘message’ or ‘concept’. Instead, the focus has been on teasing out the moments that make up this progression in the relationship of Sarah and Jess.
Despite the complete naturalism of the acting, I was also keen for the stage to capture a more stylised semblance in order to emphasise the solitude and fragility of Sarah’s flat. The three-walled set, enclosed within a desolate stage is impermanent and make-shift. We are looking in on one night in time which just so happens to be of momentous importance, and this sense of unlikeliness – luck, even – is what I believe makes Sparks a play like no other. This is a play without extreme drama or conflict, with no huge draw or pull: it is a fairly unremarkable look at what happens when two sisters are wrenched apart then thrown together in a way that is completely unnatural. But it is this balancing of nostalgia and the subtleties of human connection that make this piece so raw, so believable and so brilliant to witness. These may be two unremarkable people, but they are two unremarkable people laid completely bare for us as the audience to scrutinize.
I want you to watch Sparks feeling a little uncomfortable, as if you are intruding on Sarah and Jess, because as both struggle before us to understand themselves and to admit the truth to each other, we realise that the last thing they want is to have us listening as well.
‘Sparks’ will be performed in the Ustinov Room, Van Mildert College, on 28th and 29th November at 7:30pm.