BIG BIG SKY Hampstead Theatre

LOVE, GRIEF, AND A BRAD PITT ALBATROSS

  With loving detail, right down a glimpse of coat-racks beyond the far door,  the downstairs studio serving Tom Wells’ new play has become  a remote Formica-and-pastie caff on its last legs; a remnant of the pre-cappuccino age but still serving the birdwatchers on the sands of the East Yorkshire coast. 

        Jennifer Daley’s Angie is in charge, with Jessica Jolleys’ young Lauren to wipe tables and her rather hopeless Dad Dennis (Matt Sutton looking suitably moth-eaten)  nipping in for a free leftover pastie-and-beans just as they’re trying to close.  And, it turns out, suddenly announcing that after 45 years ignoring those things flying around in the vast skies overhead he has  become a birdwatcher.  And   thinks he can win a photography competition.  

       Enter Ed, a pawky, skinny, gabblingly shy lad from Wolverhampton burdened with a vast khaki rucksack and anxious vegan environmentalism.  He is Airbnb-ing in Lauren’s old bedroom in the hopes of landing a job as a wildlife warden looking after Little Terns in the sandbanks.  In no time,  to his slight bafflement,  he is being instructed in line-dancing steps by Angie because Lauren plays guitar for the community in this newfound pursuit. 

    We are in  Tom Wells country, out by Spurn Point and Kilnsea,   the kind of smalltown he immortally defined in The Kitchen Sink a few years ago as “A good place to come from because it’s knackered and it’s funny and it’s falling in the sea”.   I am a late catcher of this play  (it closes this weekend) but wanted to mark it, and barrack perhaps for someone else to pick it up and tour it.   I have loved his earlier work (you can still hear Great North Run on BBC Sounds by the way) and this did not disappoint.

         The beauty of what this playwright does lies in capturing and appreciating the glory of unappreciated, underpaid and fameless lives without making them into socio-political victims. Though God knows in the North-East a lot of them are.  He writes of simple pleasures, dry jokes (“Dad, we understand the concept of migration.  You’re birdsplaining!”). Or “An Albatross?  That’s the Brad Pitt of seabirds!”.  He has a keen eye for absurdity,  and is beautifully served in this by Tessa Walker’s cast.  Not least by Sam Newton’s wide-eyed Ed and his growing relationship (it spans a year or so) with the affectionately exasperated Lauren.  He happily throws away wonderful lines like the local news that  “there’s a lot of excitement about a Tundra Bean Goose”,  trusting in smiles rather than guffaws. .      

      But his themes are as immense as any:  unexpressed long griefs, loneliness, endurance,  the consolations of nature with its fragile innocence and the human capacity to spoil it by accident  (a quality in which Dennis proves champion in one awful revelation).   This writer can be lyrical without pretension, funny without emphasis.  He is not afraid to unfold a story slowly or to deliver a gasping shock;  he economically sketches for us not only the characters’ past losses but such invisible irritants as Neil, a gay retired accountant from Leeds with a £ 3k camera who pleases the women and annoyed Dennis by starting up the line-dancing nights. 

       They’re all good,  Daley as Angie giving an understated, modest, slow-burn performance which rises to moving intensity in the final moments  which resolve exactly as they should.   In 90 minutes we lived a lot of their lives, with love, and saw what they saw in the big, big skies of remote England.  Can’t ask more. 

Rating   Four.            

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