Bryony Hannah may be gaining plaudits for her portrayal of a schoolgirl monster in The Children's Hour
in the West End, but for my money the adult actor currently most
accomplished at playing precocious children is Imogen Doel. She
recently portrayed a ten-year-old who unwittingly brought about a kind
of Christmas Groundhog Day in Get Santa!
at the Royal Court, and now she brings to energetic life the
excruciatingly named 13-year-old Philosophy Rainbow Cunningham (who
understandably prefers "Sophie") in Lucy Caldwell's new play, the
second in Birmingham Rep's current peripatetic phase of existence while
its permanent premises are rebuilt.
Doel's vibrancy Caldwell's central conceit would not work, for Sophie
is dying of bone cancer; the girl we see onstage, as in Mick
at Soho last
December, is the inner Sophie, addressing us as if leaving the titular
notes behind for her next reincarnation. Oh, yes, Sophie has acquired
certain beliefs and attitudes from her globe-trotting New Agey
upbringing, even though her mother Judy has vaguer notions about cosmic
energy and elder sister Calliope (in full, Peace Warrior Star Calliope)
believes death is the end. Add the old-school Christian faith of Judy's
mother, to whose Kings Heath home the others have returned for Sophie's
final months of palliative treatment, and the set-up has all the
makings of a trite clash-of-ideas piece.
however, has a surer, warmer touch. She is one of those few playwrights
who use sentiment neither out of intellectual weakness nor emotional
cowardice, but as a glowing affirmation. These 75 minutes are about
three women each negotiating a new existence of her own, and at the
centre a girl facing its end almost before she understands what it is,
for all she may have seen in communities from Kerala to Findhorn. "Life
goes on" is at once the most banal, the most monolithically
inescapable, and for some the most terrifyingly false cliché there can
Jane Lowe, Amanda Ryan and Jayne
Wisener are strong around Doel as mother, gran and sister respectively.
Rachel Kavanaugh's straightforward, direct production (her last before
stepping down as the Rep’s artistic director) allows Caldwell's wisdom
and sensitivity their head; even a potentially tear-jerking extract
from Little Women
is modulated from schmaltz to a multi-levelled awareness of what life and death may mean to each of us.
Written for the Financial