Pros: Truly powerful storytelling and direction.
Cons: The harrowing fact that the story it tells is a reality for many women.
Climbing each level of the Royal Court Theatre towards The Jerwood Theatre Upstairs I feel the contradictory sensation of going underground. But this gradual smothering darkness is entirely appropriate for Lela & Co., because this is a play about hidden things. Secret atrocities that surely only happen in the lowest depths of an imagined hell – not the real world we live in. Certainly not in daylight. Right?
A girl on an almost empty stage sits calmly. She’s good-looking and groomed, prettily dressed and seems well cared for. As Lela (Katie West) launches into a nostalgic monologue, her charisma and easy storytelling draw us into a comfortable state of listening. The diversion is carried off with such mature theatricality. Though one of the Court’s ‘Young’ writers, there is nothing novice about Cordelia Lynn’s sophisticated structure. You can’t get too comfortable though: as the heavy red curtains that wrap the back wall of the stage signal, this is a performance, and we’re about to get the reveal.
Lela & Co. is a story – but it’s also a reality – about the commodification and degradation of women by men. This production is a tour de force in storytelling and strangely enough the moments of brilliance are achieved when it shows the audience absolutely nothing but tells us everything. As Lela’s narrative reaches its most sensitive and terrifying juncture we are plunged into darkness. During these sustained periods of blackout the most surprising thing happened – I closed my eyes. It was a natural reflex, hearing Lela’s words describe such inhuman treatment, and when I became conscious of it I was overwhelmed. In the darkness the production finds a weird sort of empathy.
Katie West is incredible as Lela: delivering long monologues effortlessly and commanding the whole stage with her small but powerful presence. David Mumeni plays various male characters in Lela’s story, charming one minute and threatening the next. At one and a half hours straight through, and chunks of that time spent in darkness, the play asks a lot of its tiny cast of two. West and Mumeni are both utterly compelling and at no point did I mourn the lack of an interval.
The direction, sound and lighting design are at once bold and subtle, just like Lynn’s text. Though the stage is almost bare we see so much, because the sounds we hear and the light that is present (or absent) controls and fluctuates the mood of this intimate theatre space.
The Royal Court continues to be thought-provoking in its choices, upholding its reputation as one of London’s very best theatres for new writing. Lela & Co. interrogates dangerous subject matter with fearless compassion, boldly declaring a terrifying fact. If only it were all a fiction.
Author: Cordelia Lynn
Director: Jude Christian
Lighting Designer: Oliver Fenwick
Sound Designer: David McSeveney
Booking Until: 3 October 2015
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking Link: http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/lela-and-co