Anything is Possible If You Think About It Hard Enough at Southwark Playhouse – review

The play runs until 9 October

Gemma Lawrence (Alex), Huw Parmenter (Rupert)
Gemma Lawrence (Alex), Huw Parmenter (Rupert)
© Taz Martin

Between the paint swatch covered, fluffy carpeted set encompassing the entirety of the auditorium, and the all-too recognisable Richard Curtis-esque encounter between two urban professionals – cuddly Rupert (after the bear) and spiky force-of-nature Alex – it would appear that we're in for the stage equivalent of a David Nicholls novel: sweet, sardonic, a little bit naughty, relatable, and very easy to sit through. Cordelia O'Neill's play starts out as all these things but, in Kate Budgen's dynamic, deceptively clever staging, proves to be so much more.

Within the space of 80 punchy, engrossing minutes, it transforms from rom-com into something profoundly affecting: a gut-wrenching examination of the aftershock of a still-born baby on a new couple. O'Neill disarms with humour and comforts with familiarity (Rupert's good-hearted but reserved and drawn to her wildness, while Alex gets a kick out of testing his limits), yet heads off accusations of cliché by having her likeable, occasionally infuriating characters directly acknowledge that they're spouting tropes. Crucially, not a single word of dialogue or piece of information they impart about themselves – she has a dysfunctional relationship with her wealthy, eccentric parents, he was adopted and idolises his mum – sounds false or contrived. This matters, because when O'Neill pulls the carpet right out from underneath them, and us, those apparently innocuous details feel, in hindsight, more and more like tiny emotional life rafts in a newly unleashed torrent of pain, unreason and sheer bloody fury at the unfairness of human existence.

In many ways this is a very cruel play…but only because life sometimes is: the concept of a child dying before their parents already feels like an aberration, something that claws away at our perception of the natural order of things. But when that child never even got to play or feel the sun on their face, the ensuing grief borders on the elemental, something acknowledged here in an astonishing sequence where the bereaved parents dance wildly together as though possessed, which of course in a way they are; the catharsis is palpable. For people that have lived through this trauma I can imagine how painful this is (I've never personally experienced parenthood yet I was completely overwhelmed) but art can also help heal, and I hope that proves the case for the brave, bruised souls that can bring themselves to see this extraordinary play.

They'll also get some great laughs, a couple to really root for (O'Neill's deft observations of contemporary London life sit well alongside an affectionate acknowledgement of her characters' myriad of flaws) and a pair of exquisite performances. Gemma Lawrence and Huw Parmenter are so utterly truthful, so in tune with each other, as Alex and Rupert connect then disconnect, bicker, make love, implode then reach moments of uneasy truce, that it barely feels like acting. Inhabiting and illuminating every moment of this visceral journey, they astound. It'll be a long time before I forget the look of desolation on Lawrence's face as the description of a coffin so small it can fit across her lap is dropped, or the unflinching selflessness of Parmenter's Huw's response to Alex's horrific fantasy that she kills him to save their child: "it makes you a fucking good mother".

Movement director Lucy Culllingford has the actors disport with an animalistic grace and energy that initially seems contrapuntal to O'Neill's concise, naturalistic writing but makes total sense as the story unfolds and these apparently civilised beings are pushed by maddening grief to the very ends of their humanity. Director Budgen seamlessly weaves the technical elements together to ingeniously represent the text without distracting from it: Camilla Clarke's set is covered in different coloured paints to reflect Alex's obsessive redecoration of a nursery their child will never inhabit, while the stars that suddenly burst through Sally Ferguson's otherwise stark lighting design at one point reference the ones the bereaved parents had stuck to the ceiling to watch over their newborn at night. These details add up devastatingly.

This is a major new play in a flawless, powerful production: educational yet entertaining, theatrically spellbinding yet achingly humane, dynamic but never sensationalist. It's not necessary to have directly experienced what Alex and Rupert are put through to be deeply moved. I properly ugly-cried but I also came out of Southwark Playhouse as exhilarated by the sheer brilliance of what I'd seen as I was drained and upset by the subject matter. Approach with caution, but go. Just go.