The Distance – December 2015

Experience: 8/10

By Deborah Bruce

Directed by Charlotte Gwinner

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Thursday 3rd December 2015

We missed this first time around – I forget why – so it was great to have another opportunity to catch it. We were even more delighted after seeing the performance, as this is an excellent play, which manages to be both funny and moving as well as raising issues rarely, if ever, mentioned in public, never mind on stage. A great spot by Paul Miller, the Orange Tree’s artistic director, who told us he’d been amazed that no other theatre had picked it up – their loss is the Orange Tree’s gain.

The set was on a raised square platform which allowed just enough foot room around its edge. A double bed was placed at the far left side with a modern-style comfy chair beside it in the left corner (close to where we sat). On the left side was a small table with a round lamp, and on the right side a rectangular shape which for this scene was being used as a table. The beige/grey colour scheme and lack of personal effects suggested an hotel room, but the clincher was the two stacks of folded towels on each corner of the bed.

The opening scene showed us a meeting between an Australian man and a Scottish woman. It soon became clear that they had met in an airport departure lounge, and since their plane had been delayed for several hours and they found each other mutually attractive, they had adjourned to a hotel to develop their relationship further. At least, that had been the plan, but now the young woman was having second thoughts. We learned a bit about them during this scene – he was an architect – but apart from her finally agreeing to stay with him there, we didn’t know them that well.

The second scene involved a major set change. The bed was dismantled – sheets and pillows removed, sections separated and moved round – and then reunited with the bedhead and the other rectangular section to form an L-shaped sofa in the far corner. The comfy chair was moved round to the entrance corner, accompanied by the table and lamp, and with the sofa now being a deep red colour and the addition of three brightly coloured ethnic rugs, we were clearly in someone’s house. The change was completed remarkably swiftly, and earned the cast, who did it all themselves, a round of applause; from the post-show talk, that was quite unusual.

There were more people involved in this scene, and from a relatively quiet start we were quickly catapulted into the middle of a furore. Bea, the woman from the hotel room, was sitting quietly on the corner sofa while one of her friends, Kate, tried to reassure her about someone called Nat. Actually, although I’ve given their names here, it took quite some time to find out who was who and their relationships to each other. For convenience, I’ll use this information as I go, but I just wanted to mention that one of the pleasures of this play was how the details emerged gradually, along with several surprising revelations which kept the emotional charge well topped up.

Two other characters were trying to help Kate in her mission to provide support to Bea, a mission whose objectives were somewhat vague at this point; these were Dewi, Kate’s apparently hapless husband, and Alex, a rather ditzy type who alternated between agreeing with Kate about everything and worrying about her son Liam, who was potentially somewhere close to the rioting in London (this was set in 2011). She left lots of messages on his phone, but he never called her back.

Dewi was sent off to make lasagne, and from Kate’s long, hectoring monologues we learned that Bea had left her husband and two young children in Australia, and Kate was doing her best to make sure she could get custody of the children. As Bea hardly got a word in edgeways, we didn’t find out what had happened until nearly the end of the play, but it was clear that Bea was distressed at her friend’s reactions and uncertain about what she wanted to do, other than being determined not to return to Australia. Ever.

Later on we met Vinnie, Dewi’s brother, and Liam, Alex’s son. Turned out that Alex had Liam’s old number in her phone, which was why he hadn’t called her. Alex’s very casual attitude to motherhood – three children by different fathers, none of whom was around much – contrasted sharply with Kate’s fiercely controlling manner, and this was one area within the play where we could not only experience our own responses to the characters, but find our attitudes shifting as more facts became available. Kate and Dewi’s baby, Iris, had been conceived through IVF, and the rockiness of their relationship was partly explained when we found out, by way of Vinnie’s outspoken disclosures, that Dewi had a teenage daughter by another woman. Kate had absolutely forbidden any mention of her existence – thankfully Vinnie had a thick skin – and I’m glad to say that this rift looked like it might be healing by the end of the play.

Bea’s final revelations caused even the vociferous Kate to shut up, and gave the audience plenty to think about as well. Again, there was the slight possibility of her situation being resolved in the penultimate scene, though from the post-show it was clear that there was a range of interpretations in the room. The set had been changed back to the bedroom layout, but the addition of a colourful throw on the bed was a clue that we weren’t back in the hotel. The presence of Kate and Dewi on the bed confirmed that, and when they left the room, the action segued neatly into the moment in the hotel room when Bea chose to be with Simon. It was a fitting way to end this piece, allowing plenty of scope for multiple analyses while also ending on a more upbeat note.

I haven’t gone into detail on the humour: it was so much part of the action that it would be hard to pick out any particular lines. It certainly helped to have this lighter tone given some of the tricky subjects being presented, and the performances were absolutely spot on and believable, even if the characters were a bit extreme in some areas. Throughout the play, the dynamic was constantly shifting from tender moments through funny ones to blazing rows and non-stop talking to silences, and the whole performance felt very realistic. All credit to the team for bringing this one back.

© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

 

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