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Big Big Sky at the Hampstead Theatre – review

The new play premieres downstairs in Hampstead

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Sam Newton, Jessica Jolleys and Jennifer Daley
© Robert Day

The sound of a chorus of gulls flying overhead, the smell of beans, and the sight of a full and well-worn community noticeboard along with the calm blue tones of Bob Bailey's café set are the beginnings of what makes Tom Wells' new play perfect summer viewing. Big Big Sky is a tender, warm and very funny look at community, motherhood, and nature in an "isolated peninsula in the North Sea".

Set in the hamlet of Kilnsea, East Yorkshire – where Wells worked when he was younger – we meet eatery owner Angie and teen Lauren, closing up shop for another winter, and Lauren's difficult-to-communicate-with dad Dennis. When hopeful tern warden Ed arrives, big changes appear on the horizon, while the group must come to terms with several types of grief.

Wells' writing is superb, delicately balancing humour and sensitive moments like holding a baby bird in the palm of your hand. Despite only seeing four characters, Wells really builds the community and we immediately understand the relationships within it.

Dennis (Matt Sutton) encapsulates a man who has lived in the same place his entire life, and though has never really been part of the community. feels stubbornly about the local birdwatching and photography competitions. In the wrong hands, this character could be somewhat of an antagonist, but you understand he just wants to fit in and reclaim his place in the community.

As his daughter Lauren, Jessica Jolleys is often the straight woman, and the times she gets to sing and play guitar are gorgeous – music could perhaps have been incorporated more into the piece. Jennifer Daley delivers a stunning performance as Angie, really coming into her own in the latter half of the play, delivering a a heartfelt speech about what it means to be a mother.

It's Sam Newton as Ed who really stands out. Nervous and nerdy but so loveable, you find yourself rooting for the guy who just wants to do his bit for the environment and take care of birds. His comedic style is similar to that of stand-up James Acaster, and there are too many funny moments to mention: highlights include his ad-libs during a hoedown, and likening a newborn learning to breathe to "getting the hang of stuff…for example: quinoa".

With the action taking place in a small café, there is the worry the scenes may feel a bit stuck, but director Tessa Walker ensures this is not the case. She builds fluidity into the piece, while never being afraid to indulge quiet moments: such as the dragging of an "open" sign back and forth in the space.

This is a beautifully wistful play, full of charm and kindness by the bucketload. It's also useful to note that Hampstead are still seating audience members with social distancing, which is wonderful for those who are taking their first steps back into the theatre – and what a first show back this would be.

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