Monologue plays always strike me as one of the scariest things an actor or writer can take on. It’s no mean feat to hold the audience engaged in your story, to keep the pace and energy up, and to remember all your lines. I’m in awe of the art form, when it’s done well. The High Life, at almost two hours long, feels like a risky endeavour from playwright Scott Younger. But any concerns were soon out of my mind as Feyisara Mendes came onto the stage as Kayla and started dancing.
The High Life follows Kayla who is in a seemingly dead-end job, serving hipsters complicated coffees following a media studies degree. Until a fateful day when she reconnects with an old friend who helps her get a job at a PR firm. It all sounds dreamy for Kayla until she gets with her boss on a drunken night out in her first week. What follows is like reading Kayla’s diary. It’s juicy. It’s honest. At times it’s utterly heart-breaking. But this raw energy makes the performance captivating to watch.
Mendes is engaging, funny and soon feels like a best mate confiding in you at the pub. She is an incredible talent. Her impersonations of the other people in Kayla’s life are witty and spot on, from her landlord Stan, who is a bit like Del Boy, to the girls at work discussing Love Island. There are only a few small slip-ups during the play, and Mendes seems utterly unfazed as she moves swiftly on. She holds the room captivated throughout, and it’s only towards the last half hour that the audience seem to collectively realise just how uncomfortable the seats are at the Barons Court Theatre.
There’s a risk that a play about a self-destructive twenty-something could trigger lots of Flea Bag comparisons, yet Younger’s writing feels wholly original, and you find yourself fully invested in Kayla’s story. The play packs in a real mix of laugh out loud, silly moments but also manages to highlight the pressures of toxic workplaces, racism and the price of what appears to be success. You’re rooting for Kayla throughout the performance.
The set is kept simple in the limited space of this intimate venue, but small touches are noticeable, such as the PR company branding on a mug. Mendes is a little clumsy at times, but whether it’s intentional or not, bumping into the table or opening her laptop the wrong way round seems to feed into the personable character she portrays.
There were clearly lots of Mendes’ friends in the audience tonight – an unpopular observation perhaps, but sometimes this can be annoying for the rest of the audience as laughter can be too loud, intimate or sexual moments trigger sniggers – no matter the seriousness of the situation. However, tonight the crowd were brilliant to be a part of. At one point, towards the end of the story, Mendes had to pause as a comment from an audience member about what was about to happen resulted in laughter from everyone. It was a miracle she didn’t corpse. This supportive gang of friends lifted tonight’s performance.
Youngers’ sensitive, amusing, and heartfelt text meets its perfect match in Mendes’ performance and Sarah Githugu’s direction. These are certainly some talents to watch.
Written by: Scott Younger
Directed by: Sartah Githugu
Produced by: Olivia Burgin and Forest Theatre Company
The High Life plays at Barons Court Theatre until 19 February. Further information and bookings can be found here.