Sparks (Old Red Lion)

Clive Judd directs Simon Longman’s new play about abandoned responsibilities

Sophie Steer and Sally Hodgkiss
Sophie Steer and Sally Hodgkiss
© JKF Man

It’s a miserable night in the Midlands when Jess turns up at her sister’s door, goldfish bowl in hand. They’ve not seen one another in 12-odd years, not since they were teenagers. Not since their mother died, in fact, when Jess took off for nowhere in particular, and Sarah, who had acted as her carer, stayed behind.

Simon Longman‘s play dwells on the difference between the two sisters. Jess is rambling and restless. She’s spent a decade on the go, her feet always itching, moving from place to place, travelling coast to coast and back again. Sarah, meanwhile, settled to the point of stultifying: got herself an office job "staring at computers" and nestled into a routine. She’s never even owned a car.

Longman never really finds the truth of their reunion and, as the pair work through a rucksack full of booze, they are so neatly opposed that both seem contrived. Jess shoots off on flights of fancy, spitting out whatever half-thought tangent springs to mind. Sarah’s static and, for the most part, silent – a protracted shrug of a human being.

Depression crops up in conversation repeatedly, and Longman seems to suggest that, despite their vast differences, both sisters suffer similarly. Neither can really find their feet – one because she can’t stop moving, the other because she can’t start – but the net effect is the same. Rootlessness. Detachment. Sorrow.

It’s a play about the past too, shot through with memories – many of which don’t match up. They pin one sister down, and send the other one running. Longman, however, slips into storytelling mode too often and too easily, so much so that Clive Judd‘s production can only acknowledge it, nodding past naturalism to stand-up routines. These are shaggy dog stories, about stints at seaside chippies and punching swans, and they haven’t the tight control – either thematic or dramatic – that a good play needs.

Formally, they scupper the credibility of the situation – as does Jemima Robinson‘s overdone mid-refurb design, too obviously a case of papering over one’s childhood.

Jess and Sarah never really take one another in and you never feel the weight of the 12 years they’ve been apart. Instead, they garble and drink: hot air and hootch. Judd has a real knack of coaxing natural performances from his actors – he was behind the nattering numpties of Little Malcolm… this summer – but the danger is that downplaying everything drains the life out of it. As Sarah, Sophie Steer shrugs off a lot of her lines, while Sally Hodgkiss‘s Jess – the two swap roles each evening – tumbles through hers indiscriminately. Longman’s script is so low-key as to be inconsequential and, despite a lick of humour, Sparks never really mines much purpose.

Sparks runs at the Old Red Lion until 5th December.