Exposed beams. A set that somewhat resembles an IKEA showroom – in a good way. And a chatty audience awaiting an evening’s performance. The result: a wholesome, communal atmosphere. Sat with my own mother beside me as Back to Back’s production of Tom Derrington’s Sleeping Lions began with the familiar notes of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, we’re eased into a performance that’s about to radically disturb the calm that had settled.
From the outset, something is amiss with Katie (Kim Fletcher) and Max (Grae Westgate), parents of Leo, whose birthday party is set to start in fifteen minutes. Not only is it their worries about how many friends will show up, an anxiety we expect knowing the show’s premise, but there are inconsistencies in their behaviour. Throughout, Leo is not present onstage, which contributes to the mystery that underscores the action. The script is clever not to reveal anything too early, only stoke the coals of our interest with a party game cut short, a tangent on bullying, and Katie and Max’s unsettling treatment of one another. At times it is uncertain whether the inconsistencies of Katie and Max’s interactions, sometimes gentle, with hints of intimacy, other times explosive with anger, are intentional. Especially as they appear to have little consequence in the following action, whilst other characters fail to react as an objective eye might imagine. Regardless, it is these moments that assure us that there is something that we don’t yet know.
Despite the frightening displays of frustration and the undercurrent of a serious situation, the play still provides moments of joy through the script’s wit and humour. Both Chrissie Derrington as a flawlessly convincing Barbara and Simon Meredith as Mike display excellent comedic timing. Director Kitty Cecil-Wright uses Mike Derrington’s set to create further moments of humour with (character) Mike being revealed and obscured by the kitchen sides at certain moments.
Mike really is fun to have onstage, although his reason for returning after we first say goodbye feels slightly unnatural, hinting that the couple may have a very different anxiety going on to what is later revealed. But we are glad of his return, particularly for a delightful moment he shares with Barbara as they sit in silence, eating jelly in the remnants of the previous scene. This moment is excellently directed for a final moment of humour before the inevitable reveal.
Although only onstage briefly, Diana Winter embodies Pascale with excellent line delivery. Katie and Max spend the most time onstage, during which we encounter their full range of skills. We see both Kate’s unsettling, layered positivity and totally brokenness, and Max’s explosive temper.
The three moments of music are effective. Besides the opening leading us into the world, there is a trio dance to Superman and a powerful, emotional ending, superbly enhanced by the music. The Superman moment is particularly memorable, as all three characters are experiencing different emotions whilst making the effort to do something playful, resulting in a layered performance. Space for more moments like these could even be an added strength to the play.
The closing image is one that will stay with audiences as they leave, both visually and emotionally. With what is revealed, we can’t help but try to examine the clues that were dropped along the way, and be impressed with the cleverness with which they were curated.
Written by: Tom Derrington
Directed by: Kitty Cecil-Wright
Stage Manager and Props by: Diana Winter
Set Designer and Construction by: Mike Derrington
Sound Technician by: Joe Oliver
Produced by: Back To Back Theatre
Sleeping Lions is currently touring until 15 October to the following venues:
30 September: Mowlem Theatre, Swanage, BH19 1DD. Book here.
1 October: Milford on Sea Community Centre, SO41 0PH. Book here.
6 – 8 October: The Black Cherry Theatre Café, Boscombe BH14AP. Book here.
14 October: The Exchange, Sturminster Newton, DT10 1FH. Book here.
15 October: Forest Arts Centre, New Milton, BH25 6DS. Book here.