Recalling his first meeting with Sarah Frankcom, almost 20 years ago, playwright Simon Stephens reveals he felt the then literary manager for the Royal Exchange was setting him a challenge, daring him almost, to fall in love with the exposing, in-the-round space of the theatre’s main house.
If it was a challenge, it’s probably fair to say Stephens fell head-long into it and it’s a love that has been reciprocated. Since then the Stockport-born writer has written six plays for the space, four of which have been directed by Frankcom.
Light Falls marks her final production as artistic director of the venue before she takes up a new position as director of LAMDA drama school. Frankcom, who first joined the Exchange in 1998 and has been its sole Artistic Director since 2014 has been a strong driving force for new writing, establishing the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in 2005. Given this history it is fitting that the Exchange commission a new play with a long-time collaborator to mark her departure. It also feels like Frankcom has thrown down another gauntlet to Stephens. Raising the bar yet higher – to write a play for the space in which the writing and the actors are the sole focus. Designer Naomi Dawson has transformed the space, by removing not simply a couple of rows but replacing an entire section of the theatre with plywood steps. This bare plywood extends into the round stage area, and for the most part there are no props or furniture.
It opens with an extended and at times uncomfortably graphic monologue from Christine (Rebecca Manley), a recovering alcoholic who has a brain haemorrhage while stretching for a bottle of vodka on a supermarket shelf and dies. Speaking on the other side she tells us it didn’t hurt but it was embarrassing. This dark humour runs through the play as we move across the north to where Christine’s various family members are at the moment of her death. Like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Past she gets to view her family from a different perspective.
Before writing the script, Stephens, who grew up in Stockport, said he and Frankcom visited various Northern towns and cities meeting people whose lives somehow echo his ancestors and are reflected in the characters on stage. As an Ode to the North it is a depressing and narrow view. All the characters’ lives are desperate in some way. The added grief of death gives them cause to open their lungs in a wail, but we sense their sadness runs much deeper. Even before news of the death hits, one has already attempted suicide and another is contemplating it.
The acting from a strong ensemble cast is excellent all round, bringing a painful humanity and rawness to many of the interactions, particularly the sadness of Lloyd Hutchinson’s Bernard – a lonely business man in search of sex, food – anything to make himself appear more interesting.
Running through the piece is Jarvis Cocker’s melancholy ‘Hymn of the North’ an original song written for the play. Repeatedly we hear the lines: ‘Please stay in touch with me. In this contactless society’.
It is here, rather than any true reflection of the north, where the play hits home. However much geography divides us, family is an invisible tie that draws us back. For Stephens, who has lived in London for the past 25 years, we sense the Royal Exchange has a family-like pull, repeatedly drawing him back to the region. Light Falls is not so much an ‘Ode to the North’ as Stephens’ and Frankcom’s ode to the Royal Exchange.★ ★ ★ ★
Light Falls is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 24 October to 16 November 2019.