Actor Jade Anouka’s debut play, Heart, has been kept tantalisingly on the horizon since the start of the pandemic. It was set to be staged at London’s Kiln theatre in 2020 but, within a week of that announcement, UK theatres closed their doors. Now, it arrives for a three-night run at the tail end of the Edinburgh fringe.
And within the first minute you know you’re in safe hands. Supremely assured in this in-the-round space, Anouka is also in sync with her accompanist Grace Savage, whose beatboxing and electro-pop provides a near constant soundtrack. Heart is a monologue but this production is very much a two-hander.
The story centres on two relationships: Anouka’s first marriage to a man, when she was in her mid-20s, and her subsequent revelatory romance with Savage. But each of these unions has a third figure: “the beast” of depression. First time round, it is her husband’s beast and Anouka powerfully conveys the impact of mental illness on partners who may feel they are failing their loved one. (This is done with a sensitivity akin to Maimuna Memon’s Manic Street Creature in last year’s Roundabout programme.)
The marriage’s break-up leaves her with her own beast and she battles feelings of inadequacy, spiralling through further encounters (“sex is a great healer!”) until she makes an instant connection with Savage. Anouka’s beast remains, though, this time accompanied by fears of telling her family she is in love with a woman and apprehension about how the sort of acting roles she is offered may change.
Heart is an autobiographical show but Anouka does not name parts or plays, although a boxing stance evokes Phyllida Lloyd’s great Shakespeare Trilogy. The narrative is fleet-footed – the secondary characters could have a tad more space to breathe and the smooth delivery occasionally does not leave quite enough room for the story’s pain to be felt. The storytelling blends shades of performance poetry and rap while Savage’s sound desk punctuates beastly rumbles and celestial waves with thumping breaths.
Anouka can make an account of traipsing to a friend’s sofa for the night glow with lyrical detail; equally affecting are the times when she speaks mic-free, Savage’s accompaniment momentarily silenced. At one point the pair appear side by side as if rocking a crowd; elsewhere they harmonise facing each other from opposite ends of the stage.
The beast is never banished from Heart – this is real life, not a fairytale – but you would be hard pressed to find a happier ending on the fringe. A clear-sighted show delivered in the flush of love.