One of my friends repeats to me: if you want to make an audience cry, you have to make them laugh first. Lava by James Fritz does both beautifully, filling the intimate space of Soho Upstairs with raucous laughter, followed by absolute stillness and heartache.
In a story about the aftermath of a disaster (an asteroid striking London and killing over 12,000 people) laughter might not be one’s most anticipated reaction to moments that occur onstage. But the wittiness of the script and the actors’ embodiment of characters allows this release before – and during – the show’s more sinister moments.
After the disaster, Vin (Dan Parr) is no longer speaking. Neither his work colleague Rach (Bethany Antonia) nor mother (Kacey Ainsworth) can encourage him otherwise. When Jamie (Oli Higginson), a survivor of the disaster, stays at Rach’s house and cannot stop talking (or singing!), the play evokes questions around self-expression, and how we cope when we cannot express the torment inside.
Higginson’s comedic timing as Jamie ignites large moments of humour. His delivery of Jamie’s self-centred, irritating, and often ridiculous lines make him a character you love to dislike, but still care for. This initial establishment of Jamie as a comedic presence ensures the emotional impact on the audience when he later becomes more serious and vulnerable. Likewise, Ainsworth’s portrayal of a mother’s journey from support to utter frustration frightens the audience through her contrasting body language and tone. Antonia’s use of stillness during Rach’s tumultuous emotional journey becomes powerful as her internal struggles break out in her dialogue. Parr, almost constantly onstage, portrays a wealth of emotions with no dialogue to express himself. His considered use of facial expressions and evolving body language mean we understand the emotional turmoil he is experiencing, without him needing to say a word.
Co-directors Laura Ford and Angharad Jones and fight director Maisie Carter create equally beautiful moments of comedy and devastation. The movement of Rach and Vin when they lip sync and dance across the stage is delightful. Vicky and Vin’s respective breakdowns are terrifying when their bodies are ridden with tension and violence. The characters’ relationships are developed and well-explored, but despite the strong connections between them, the audience are always included. Dialogue is delivered to them – and at one point a whisky glass flew into the front row! (That one was perhaps less intentional!)
Amy Jane Cook’s set design – a raised platform with a cut out hole filled with gravel, and a backboard with another large hole and a door – is a perfect playground for the actors. It is functional and innovative, offering opportunities for dynamic staging, whilst also being a constant reminder of the disaster that brought this action on. The curtains either side of the platform could perhaps do with always being slightly ajar to avoid the actors having to pull them open and closed when entering and exiting the stage, making transitions smoother. Similarly, near-blackouts are used throughout to indicate the passage of time, accompanied by a repeated booming sound. As the actors are still seen moving during the dimmed lights, these moments could be developed through movement, or another creative use of lighting. However, with the lighting as it was the transitions were functional for telling the story.
Overall, Lava was a delight of evocative performance and innovative design. The play will leave you emotionally satisfied and buzzing to see what theatre company Fifth Word take on next. It definitely has me.
Written by: James Fritz
Directed by: Laura Ford and Angharad Jones
Produced by: Corinne Salisbury
Design by: Amy Jane Cook
Lighting Designer: Alexandra Stafford
Sound Designer: Dan Balfour
Video Designer: Louise Rhoades-Brown