As we walk into the theatre, set up like a dingy apartment, the lights yellow and humid, the three characters are sitting on the furniture, looking at their phones. Soph gets her sister, Dex, and brother, Sim, up, and they go to their grandmother’s funeral, where a religious figure of some sort reads a hilariously bad obituary. The siblings start to giggle and we straight away get into the extremes we will spend the next 90 minutes in: the cold darkness of loss, of loneliness, of being an outsider and living in constant struggle, alongside the most fun, enjoyment, laughter and joy that can possibly be had in a play.
They are orphans and have no other family, so they move back into their grandmother’s house, pack all her things away in boxes, and Soph, the eldest, gets a job in a care home. They start to split and lose their singularity. Soph is played by four actors (Isobal Fairchild, Sera Mustafa, Natasha Thurrell and Harmony Nanton), Sim by two (Daniel Pinto and Joseph Garwood), and Dex by three (Amaia Aguinaga, Frances Gillard and Roseby Franklin-Denyer). They don’t come on at different times, though, or represent different stages in life. They are all together, often speaking over each other, but in the outside world no one hears them.
Although within the family they change which version of each person they speak to, recognizing the complexity of who they are, outside people only notice one person, but there are many of them. They all dress about the same, in three bold colours. These rather simplistically denote certain features of their personalities: Soph in red (the one charged with anger, the one looking for love), Dex in green (the outsider, the drifter, the one who is like nature), and Sim in blue (the boy, the one who calms things down). These easy colours take away a challenge for the audience that could make it more engaging, but the split characters still work fantastically well.
In moments of high tension, when the house is in ruins, Soph is out every night and Dex is suffering complex mental health issues, all the actors gather, the many bodies playing various roles in the arguments between three people. Their bodies become the scene, losing any distinction between the furniture and the characters, which brilliantly takes us into the world of loss and trauma. The staging and acting in these big scenes is perfectly done, bringing out tears and laughter again and again.
Sim’s relationship with his best friend, Kayo (Mason Clark-Whale), develops interestingly and is not made too obvious. This slow progression gets us really involved in their desires, so their setbacks are some of the most moving parts of the play. It becomes painfully beautiful when Kayo leaves Sim’s big 18th birthday party and one version of Sim turns to the other half of himself, dressed the same, usually not mutually acknowledged, and hugs him while the others dance in animal masks.
There are so many scenes in this play, so many characters, so many versions of each character, it is pointless to try and describe exactly how What Was Left sucks the audience into its hilarious and outstandingly emotional world, how it picks every feeling from us and blows it up, how it plays and mourns and seems to contain all the fun of the world in its huge cast – it’s better just to say that this play makes you feel everything, and it is perfect theatre. I cannot think how the performance could be better.
The only problems are with the moral side of the story. Soph is adamant with her friends that they don’t judge her for sleeping around. She wants sex, and that does not mean that anyone is using her, it’s her own choice. But then, at the end, the family can only find unity when she stops sleeping around, which seems like a very conservative moral given what seems to be the liberal messages of the play. Sim acts as the mediator between his sisters, which can often make them seem out of control and reliant on him, which goes against the power the sisters gain from their own journeys. And Dex’s mental health problems are overcome in some way at the end when she manages to describe them, writing a letter to the annoying girl who follows her around, and finally having a voice in the family, which doesn’t seem like a very helpful message for people with mental health issues, to just confess them and then it’s over.
But still, this is an amazing play. It is so funny, so profound, so sad and touching and fun and exciting and energetic, the actors have so much fun and it buzzes all around the room – it can’t be missed.
Author: Molly Taylor
Director: Matt Hassal
Producer: Aeron Donnelly-Jackson
Booking link: https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/what-was-left/##details
Booking until: 28 June 2019