...and you have my pity
13 April 2017
Sad Little Man is a smart, simple, wry, hurting play, says Lily James
Oliver Strong isn’t talking to you. Which is disorientating in the context of what’s been on. Celebrations is talking to you. No Human is Illegal is asking for your help. he she they is asking you what you think.
Strong isn’t talking to you, because he’s a lover and no one understands lovers so they don’t talk to anyone but the person you love. But at first you think he is.
His apparently interrogative stance is a disarming contrast to the lilting first narrative: he’s staring you down, while rhapsodising about golden fields of wheat and corn, and the scent of corn and dust, and joy. All delivered with flushed cheeks and a barrel-of-the-gun look. It’s so, so smart. Even though Josh Overton’s script keeps telling you how simple it is.
A lot of this show is pretending not to be smart. The shuffled and messy transitions, the I-don’t-know-where-I-can-go with this agony. It keeps you on the edge on your seat more than any sharpness and refinement of touch could.
Because among all this pretend-mess, the production is full of detail and set piece. The bath is like an Emin installation.
I’m so confident in this appraisal that I forget that it’s smart, not simple, although they keep telling me it’s simple. When Danielle Harris emerges from the bath like a rabbit from a hat I’m totally enthralled by such a simple trick. The use of helium is un-self-indulgent and oddly (and appropriately) not funny. There’s too much burning anger onstage all the time for helium voices to break the tension.
This is a sad and hurting play that makes me feel sad and hurting. But there’s wryness there. “Ten years have passed and my arm hurts”: there’s an edge of conscious self-pity. The text conversation between Lee and Emily is believable and lovely and gross and very hot.
The play-fighting is like a reflection of Celebrations in a pool of blood. They ignore the boundaries of the stage. It’s hard and shrill. Strong is electric. He is wired for sound, unpredictable, flush rising to rash. Harris’ depiction of Emily suffers. The girl from the text messages never really appears onstage; she’s gentle and gleaming and as light as a feather as Strong carts her around stage.
This is strong direction from Tyler Mortimer, and I understand it: Emily becomes a projection, a perfected fantasy. But it gives Harris little scope to flesh Emily beyond a dreamy hazy melancholy. The symmetry of their names Emi-Lee furthers the impression of a retold and colonised history.
Overton’s writing has a strong metatheatrical bent. Strong, exhausted, says to the audience: “I don’t think I’ve got much show left in me.” And he seems to really mean it. Mortimer makes theatrically beautiful and textually considerate use of the microphone: it becomes a rod for Lee’s back, an intrusion in the bedroom.
It ends, and then it stops ending, and then it ends again. (Doesn’t it just.) There’s a death, and a resurrection, but then another death. It’s briefly alluded to that Emily never got much of a chance to tell anything. It’s maybe not enough.
Neither performer bows. I’m glad they don’t, it’s wrong for the moment, but they deserve one.
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Photo credit: Giulia Delprato