mac, Birmingham
Opened 7 March, 2011

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.
Without 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 Gordon's Bea 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.
Caldwell, 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 be.
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 Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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