Only a few months ago in January I was privileged to watch Play With Fire's inaugural production, and knew then that this company meant business. It was indeed a fine production, but left me wondering what play could follow this and how they intended to move on. So it was with great anticipation that I went to see their latest, and unbelievably only second, offering as a company, Sans Merci at Hope Mill Theatre this evening.
Once again I went knowing nothing about either play or playwright. Where DO you find these plays?? Well, wherever that may be I for one am extremely grateful; this play is so tightly and truthfully written that at the end it took me a few moments before I could gather myself to applaud, and even longer before I could actually come down to converse normally with the people around me. I had no idea what to expect, and the obscure French title really didn't help, but I urge anyone who reads this not to let that put you off going to see this phenomenal piece of writing so truthfully laid bare by Play With Fire.
In a nutshell - I won't spoil it - two young university students form, in a very short space of time, a very strong bond and embark upon a lesbian love affair. They go to Colombia together to protest against the governments bulldozing of a sacred hill to the indigenous tribe that lives there, and get caught by a gang of rebels who brutally rape them both and kill one. The play starts three years on from this and the first meeting of the survivor with her dead lover's puritanical mother.
Highly emotionally charged and extremely powerful, and yet sharp-witted and homely too, this play could easily have fallen in the trap of mock heroic pathos, but thankfully it was directed and acted with a solid and gritty realism which worked very much in its favour.
A cast of three bring this story to life, and with real time and flashback, we learn much more about not only both the girls and the nature of their relationship and tragedy, but also about the girl's mother, with the play offering a perhaps unintentional insight into middle-class middle-America mentality too.
Hannah Ellis-Ryan was utterly superb as the survivor of the pair, Kelly. There wasn't a single second of her stage presence that I wasn't captivated by her truthfulness (there goes that word again!). I was unconvinced about her San Francisco accent, but to be honest, that slight concern paled into total insignificance when looking at the production as a whole. Judy Holt plays the mother of Tracy (the dead girl), and her high-handed and prejudicial manner, and her subsequent swallowing of pride allowing us to see a more human and humane side of her were superbly measured. The voice and mannerism just right; I have met people in the States like her. Finally, in the flashback scenes we meet Tracy too. Played here by Chloe Proctor. Her nervousness and hyper-ventilating quite solid and sincere. Who wouldn't turn out to be a shy nervous wreck with a mother like that?! Her final speech and her mother's reaction to it will stay with me for a long time.
There was just one thing which most unfortunately spoilt this production. The set design (Irene Jade) and directing (Daniel Bradford). The stage was made extremely long and narrow, as were the audience seats. There was a main central playing area of the apartment with a front row of seats simply far too close to the set, and branching off from this SL was the Colombian hill, too far away for those seated on the opposite side, and on SR we were given a room in the university dorms, and even further away, a lecture theatre in the university. Both these being too far for audience seated near the hill! I include the director in this too for the simple reason that he OKed this design and then had the cast acting seated on the floor in the university spaces meaning that this further obscured our view of these scenes. I am sure that with a little more thought the four areas could have been more compact without the need to elongate the space unnecessarily. And I am truly sorry to have to say this but of all the productions I have seen at Hope Mill, this was the worst use of their space I have thus far seen.
Apart from this, Sans Merci [which we learn is taken from Keats' poem, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, as we are given a rather interesting lecture into the progeny of this poem and an exploration around some of the themes it contains] is neither without thanks nor pity. It is a testament to a fledgling company with lofty ambition to produce a work of such high quality. It is also really rather unusual on another level too. Majority of plays presented on the so-called Fringe Circuit are new works, this is a published one; most of the plays that are about homosexuality concern male gayness; this tackles lesbianism; most of the plays are male-oriented or male-centric; this is a cast of three females. Massive thumbs up on all three counts.
The play runs 105 minutes through without interval, and is at Hope Mill Theatre until 24th September. More information can be found here www.playwithfireproductions.com
Reviewer: Alastair Zyggu
Reviewed: 8th September 2016
North West End Rating: ★★★★