Esalan Gates is deeply immersed in Pitch Productions’ Sparks by Simon Longman.
Sparks draws you in until you’re too close for comfort, before wrenching your heart out as if it’s your own fault for allowing yourself to become so immersed in that world. The script is an excellent choice by Pitch Productions, as Longman constructs layers upon layers of hazy memory and indirectness in the dialogue that forces the audience to focus unwaveringly on this small world of two women in a kitchen in order to untangle their lives. Gayaneh Vlieghe (Jess) and Athena Tzallas (Sarah) have great chemistry as they portray estranged sisters who have reunited for one night in which they hash out their painful childhood memories and subsequent fractured identities as adults.
Vlieghe takes up the majority of the dialogue, effectively monologuing for the entirety of Act One, as Tzallas only speaks when absolutely necessary. Vlieghe’s portrayal of the unreliable Jess is instantly likeable as she achieves multiple audience laughs within the first fifteen minutes of the play. Her fidgetiness and awkwardness are palpable as she tells story after story until you can’t remember why she started in the first place. Vlieghe’s impressions of characters in her stories are hilarious, and her facial expressions are well-timed for belated comedic effect. However, the constant refrain from Vlieghe that Sarah is ‘good at taking care of people’ grows increasingly grating throughout the play, and so the final reveal of Jess’ real reason for seeking Sarah out after all these years is all the more infuriating for the audience.
Tzallas’ Sarah really only comes into her own in Act Two, as Vlieghe’s Jess slowly draws her out in smiles and then laughs throughout Act One. Tzallas’ face is largely either walled up against Vlieghe’s sprawling attempts at conversation or giving into her own dry sense of humour, so it is perhaps one of the most interesting moments of the show when Tzallas snaps in one of her few pieces of long-form dialogue during the retelling of a time she punched a swan. Tzallas’ hysterical anger is surprising and welcome for it, as by this point we have grown frustrated with the unrelenting stream of words from her sister.
Vlieghe and Tzallas allow only the briefest glimpses at the emotional turmoil their characters secretly harbour, as both grow close to tears in their characters’ most vulnerable moments before pulling the façade back up and moving on. It is exquisite when the two have moments of connection, whether it’s by Vlieghe unconsciously mimicking Tzallas’ tucking of her sleeves over her hands, or as one sister watches the other as they tell their story to the audience. It almost feels like a breach of intimacy as we intrude on such a deeply personal reunion.
There are periods where the dialogue feels repetitive and stagnant as we feel as though we have been trapped in the same moment of Jess talking and Sarah attempting to disengage. This is where the tech shines, as it helps to differentiate separate moments in a play that takes place in the same location for its entirety. The lighting smoothly transitions between a warm orange and striking blue to indicate the passing of time, and the ongoing soundtrack of rain falling becomes so natural that the audience have a moment of panic when it suddenly stops in the climax of Act II, leaving us in absolute quiet.
Sparks is a great success in its portrayal of the humanity of its characters. The comic moments range from slapstick physical humour to dry sarcasm that shouldn’t blend as well as they do. The presence of a toy fish in a bowl on the table throughout is a wonderful reminder of the sentimentality central to the play; the combination of humour and heart-break is embedded in every moment of this performance.
Sparks will be performed in the Ustinov Room, Van Mildert College, on 29th November at 7:30pm.
Image: Pitch Productions