To the list of audience instructions (no filming, phones off etc) should be added: if you arrive wearing a synthetic anorak that rustles loudly with every motion, please take it off before the show starts. The fidgety person sitting behind me upstairs at the Royal Court took no notice of my annoyed glances and made a noise like a dozen nylon sleeping bags having an orgy every time they shifted. A fellow reviewer had better luck pointedly staring down someone along our row who started rummaging in a packet of Fruit Pastilles halfway through this intimate production. Honestly – what is with these people?!
Anyway, back on-topic. I was very happy to be back at this venue, which I haven’t visited in a while. It’s a gorgeous space – maybe the best studio theatre in London? – small enough to foster close relationships between the audience and the performers, but with the space and budget to accommodate ambition. On this occasion it’s configured with the audience on two sides, with the set a single bed on a plinth with mounds of mud against the side walls.
Upon this stage, a nameless young woman recounts the story of her relationship with “You” (finally named at the end as Gabriel) from barbeque first meeting though co-habitation and on to a conclusion which I won’t spoil.
Gabriel is some kind of rich poet. Our protagonist’s family run a Chinese restaurant in London while she does something in an office where her boss indulges in borderline inappropriate behaviour. She seems keener on Gabriel than he on her, and the relationship doesn’t exactly burst with romantic potential. Are we in for a tale of toxic masculinity, possibly with a side order of coercive control? Or will the play subvert such expectations?
Ava Wong Davies’ script is effective and occasionally elegant, and it’s hard to imagine it being more capably performed than by Sabrina Wu, who gives us a portrait of a pragmatic explorer in the foothills of love. There are enough indications that there may be trouble ahead to keep us engaged, even if the pay-off isn’t ultimately particularly satisfying.
After playing it straight narratively for most of the play, a late episode side-steps into experimentalism with repeated accounts of a critical evening in the couple’s journey. Are we supposed to stop trusting Wu’s character? And did a moment of violence really happen, or was it a fantasy? Breaking established form needs to be done more skillfully and with a surer purpose than this. When the final scenes revert to naturalism, you’re left wondering what this stylistic spasm was intended to achieve?
Similarly mystifying is the decision to stage the production in traverse configuration. Monologues need the audience’s undivided attention, so with half of us peering at Wu’s back at any given moment, the director (Anna Himali Howard with Izzy Rabey) has set an unnecessary obstacle in the way of allowing the play to flourish.
Graceland (no idea why it’s called this – I didn’t spot a single Elvis reference) is not a bad play, but this staging, along with Davies’ inconsistent approach to storytelling, mean that it’s a difficult one to love. I suspect it would be so even without the distraction of rustling sweetie bags and anoraks.
Written by: Ava Wong Davies
Directed by: Anna Himali Howard with Izzy Rabey
Produced by: Royal Court with SISTER
Graceland plays at Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs until 11 March. Further information and bookings can be found here.