This powerfully written piece of theatre is centred around young Leo’s 6th birthday and the party his mother Katie has organised for him, determined to give him the party he deserves. Leo’s father Max is concerned the whole thing is a terrible idea. The play is set in real time straight through run of 90 minutes approximately and as the parents wait for Leo’s friends to arrive, accusations start flying, uninvited guests’ surface and painful truths are realised.
My Facebook feed is regularly filled with words of wisdom concerning kindness especially for those around us who may be suffering hidden terrible trauma or upset. This commanding piece of theatre explores what lies underneath a typical family celebration.
Kim Fletcher and Grae Westgate fully embody the seeming normality of suburban life. You know something special is happening when both actors show dexterity with balloon blowing up, props notorious for having a mind of their own, with such aplomb. A simple act that can be easily identified with setting the scene: there is an awareness that all is not quite right in the mundane, reminiscent shades of Abigail’s Party, but more acute in a pervading created atmosphere right from the start. Ominous tones in simple words, like Scotch Eggs and quality of paper plates, in their hands became weapons of attack and destruction allowing only for one piece of intimate shoulder touching to recognise any form of previous intimacy. There is a love there but it is covered in a raw honest swearful language.
Leo, like the eponymous Abigail, never makes an appearance but Chrissie Derrington as Barbara turns up unexpectedly and is clearly an ally of both parents. Her bullying monologue was impeccable and I could see the audience were totally captured by the telling of her story, again, coping with jelly making and pass the parcel props alongside such revelatory information. It takes a special skill to make the mundane so scary. Her Game of Thrones references were particularly well written without resorting the cliché.
To further aggravate Max’s sense of failure, the dishwasher is sought to be mended by Simon Meredith as Mike, bringing some much needed casual “Dad” like humour into the mix with an instant bond with Barbara. The popping up from behind the counter at (in)opportune moments was very well thought out and added just the right amount of centralisation and brevity to an ever-increasing heavy atmosphere.
Diana Winter as Pascale encompassed everything that was “woke” about today in her smart characterisation which intended to make her the enemy in everyone’s eyes. Barbara’s one word response summed up not only the character’s responses but also our own.
Such clever writing is more than matched by clever and meticulous direction. The placement of a toy car, rocket ship etc needing to be exactly where they needed to be was so subtle, almost undetectable. The final moment was very beautifully done. I did sometimes want more silence as the play continued but this may be a pace decision, ratching up the tension.
I have had to be very careful about “spoilers” and the best compliment I can give is that the play is like a jig-saw puzzle and I wanted to see it again almost immediately after to see how the pieces were put together. Every phrase, movement and word has a significance. The audience seemed fixed to their seats at the end trying to comprehend and then talk about what had been seen, an accolade in itself. Lots of “that’s why” conversations being overheard.
As a reflection on today’s attitudes and how society deals with communication, WhatsApp exclusion references etc, in such a naturally written way only adds to character progress and conclusion. I am so glad I got to see this play: even as I type there are more penny drop tying up of threads. Its content and performance will stay with me for a long time.
This is an adult play and has equivalent themes and language that may not appeal to all. However, everything is in context to produce a brilliant stage experience that should be both enjoyable and thought provoking to all attendees.
[Editorial: Sleeping Lions is on tour across the region until 15 October – further details here.]