Judy Upton's play won a Guinness Ingenuity Award for the Red Room Theatre (not enough, alas, to prevent its eviction from its former premises) and is revived at Battersea as part of the Time Out Critics' Choice strand. On the evidence of this production, such acclaim seems somewhat excessive: as the beer commercials used to say, it's good but not that good.
Not having seen the play in its first run, I can only speculate that part of this falling-off may be due to a complete re-casting. As Pola – who has fled her family in Sydenham to live in an out-of-season amusement arcade in Hastings and spends her time tagging every blank wall on the South Coast – Lizzie McPhee is rather too brittle, the light in her wild eyes changing as if at the flick of a switch between enthusiasm and psychosis. Pola's main antagonist, her sister's fiancé Sam (Martin Beaumont), is an unsympathetically anal twerp from the word go, and as younger sister Aimee, Emily Hillier does little more than act as a bridge between these two poles. Nick Bartlett occasionally overdoes things as Jake, a going-nowhere-fast young boatman, but generally preserves the appeal of the character's straightforwardness.
In the context of such a production, Upton's play is revealed as springing from a formulaic foundation – bring two opposing spirits into collision – and is spasmodically sketchy thereafter. Her strength is that she trusts the audience to fill in the deep background from discreet hints made by the sisters about their family history of difficulties and hospitalisations; her weakness is that, as often, such trust shades into reliance on our generosity in papering over the gaps in her writing. Sam's sudden lapse into coma (which may or may not be epileptic), and equally sudden revival an hour of playing time later with full auditory memories of the intervening period, generate a certain amount of mileage, but in an otherwise rigorously naturalistic play it screams "device". Pola's collection of soap bars from ex-lovers (clients?) who deserted her is a nice symbol, but upset in the closing minutes by Sam pressing his own bar into her hand despite an involvement based entirely on mutual hatred.
Upton has an ear for natural speech and a head for natural character which she needs to trust more thoroughly in order to stop derailing herself by the wanton insertion of portentous symbols. Sunspots is considerately directed by Lisa Goldman and finely designed by Annabel Shapiro (the walls of the BAC Studio covered in multi-coloured spray-graffiti tags), but one rather wonders what the fuss was about.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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