How My Light Is Spent, by Alan Harris, directed by Liz Stevenson; April 24 2017.

“What’s the play about?” Zoe asks me over too-spicy pho that she will feel sloshing around later – audibly I swear, did you not hear it – whenever she moves in her seat in the dark of the Studio Theatre.
              I tell her what I remember from the website. “A man lives with him mom in Newport. Bad job. Maybe no job? Anyway, little happiness.” (I’m trying to wrangle noodles with chopsticks while I wait for a fork, thus the staccato.) “Is that because of Newport? Is it shit?”
              “I dunno.” Then, as if it will answer the question: “Weren’t Goldie Lookin Chain from Newport?”
              “Maybe it’s like the Coventry of Wales. Like a punchline?” Zoe and I met at university near Coventry. That we both know to say near, not in, means we are not above jokes with easy punchlines. “Anyway, he calls a phone sex operator every week, they talk and to quote Mel C, things will never be the same again.”
              “I think I was a bit too liberal with the garlic sauce.”
              “Oh and I forgot the main thing: he starts to disappear. Like, his hands go invisible.”
              “Right, OK.” She smiles. “So, themes of alienation and connection.” We met over logic problems at university, went on to buzz off of Jeanette Winterson and blue WKD and existentialism together. She taught me the phrase buzz off of. Theme chat is in our wheelhouse. “Sad lives in bad towns?”
              I nod. “But it’s a comedy about those things. Uplifting.”
              “Cool,” she says. “I can handle sad and bad, though. I’m from Rochdale, remember.”
              See above re easy punchlines.
              The actors are already on stage by the time we arrive. They sit at either end of the narrow platform and in the background, chimes, the sound of seagulls, music that wobbles like a radio in 1959 is being tuned.
              In front of us: “You turn up and it’s already started. We’re already kind of part of things, aren’t we?”
              A staticky bar of Onward Christian Soldiers and then the play begins. And it’s funny and quick and very, well, writerly:

When Kitty answered the phone –
Good evening, this is Kitty –
He was already on the verge.
What should I call you?
Jimmy, the night before, had watched Troy on Film 4.
Umm, Hector.
From Kitty’s point of view what followed was all very typical. Little did she know this was the start of a story for her too.

              At the door, they handed out copies of the play. Afterwards, I want to see how the thing is written. There’s no speaker attribution, and the notes say the play is written for any number of performers, with dialogue to be divided up as future productions see fit. Director Liz Stevenson’s decision to use only two performers, Rhodri Meilir (as Jimmy) and Alexandra Riley (as Kitty), is a smart one: they are both excellent, Riley especially so with her quieter material, doubling up as Jimmy’s mother, Rita, and estranged/abandoned daughter, Mallary.
              And in general, the production is very good. Joshua Pharo’s lighting and Giles Thomas’s sound design add depth and texture to what are often extremely short scenes. Maroon 5 for the café date is the perfect, nauseating choice. The direction and movement in the playground scenes – with the characters on a seesaw and swings – is grounded in place in a way that you wouldn’t expect given the whole thing takes place on a long, elevated platform.
              What limits the play, both in terms of laughs and emotional resonance, particularly in the final scene, is how it’s written. The opening notes contrast real-time dialogue (presented in italics) with “narrative dialogue”, where the play does a lot of telling:

I’ve been sacked, Mum. Replaced. By a bin.
Rita’s husband, Gregor, had left her when they lived in Llanelli.
No contact since for her or son Jimmy –
Not even a birthday card.
Several failed relationships, some good –
Some fucking terrible – including Jacob who stole all the savings she’d hidden in a bag of flour on Christmas Eve –
Resulting in her and Jimmy ending up in Ringland.
Fucking Newport.
Even though she felt and outsider Rita did her damndest to fit in in Newport.
And wanted that for Jimmy too.
There might be jobs going at the new retail park, Friar’s Walk –
That’s when the tingling started in jimmy’s hands.
That’s when the change happened.
When he realised
What am I qualified to do after taking orders off doughnut eaters twenty times and hour?
You’ll have to sign on.

              This style sets a fine, brisk pace and is often exploited for irony, but to my (admittedly grounded in the novel tradition) mind, there’s too much of this telling, too little showing. A moment of real distress on Jimmy’s part, when he’s contemplating signing on, moves very quickly to more narration. Over the course of the play, this style means many of the emotional beats fail to land. The scenes with Mallary are a relief when they come being as they are both longer and featuring less narration and more real-time dialogue.
              There is the problem, too, of Kitty (“Little did she know this was the start of a story for her too”). Jimmy speaks to her for nine minutes every Wednesday night for eight months, during which time she never talks about herself, and Jimmy falls in love with her. OK, fine, I guess. Less fine: her somehow falling in love with him and togetherness being posited as a happy ending for them both. She’s no Manic Pixie Dream Girl – she does have an inner life, even if it’s only very shallowly explored, both in narration and dialogue – but she’s not far off, as written. Or rather, a lot of the tropes are there: her options in life all revolve around men; Jimmy tries to “save” her from escort work; her ambitions to study psychology are written off, at the end, as merely dreams of “studying for a course that analyses what people do – instead of actually doing something herself”. Her backstory, when we get it, is vague, cloaked in euphemistic language: flick a switch so she didn’t have to exist, lose herself, want to disappear. Sigh.
              And look, I’m into the uncertainty about whether Jimmy is actually, literally disappearing, about whether it’s a writer’s metaphor or the character’s psychosis or an actual science miracle. I’d be into a take on Sartre’s Nausea featuring more jokes. But when Jimmy asks, at the end, whether Kitty can see him, I bristle. When we’re told (not shown) that they are two lights burning for each other, I don’t buy it. And when we’re told their love lights up Newport, that nothing else matters, I don’t feel it, uplifted. Just sceptical.
              “Maybe we’re cynics,” Zoe says as we walk to the tram stop afterwards. We clap for a man playing keyboard on Market Street.
              I shake my head. “We’re just real people.”
              “With personalities that are a lot to take and also exes.”
              “Yeah, and mistakes we’re constantly analysing whether we’re making again.”
              “Yep, furiously studying Savage Love every week.”
              I laugh. “Realists, but still sometimes with hearts where our eyes should be.”
              “It’s better, right?”
              I’ve seen Coventry and Manchester light up. But happy endings, in fiction and elsewhere, have to be earned. And more to the point, they have to be seen for what they are: not an ending at all. That’s the fun of it.
              “It’s better.”

How My Light Is Spent is at The Royal Exchange until May 13.

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