Inside comprises three short studies of what it means to be locked down and lonely from the perspective of three older women (a second part will focus on “outside”). Performed live on the stage of the Orange Tree theatre, and directed by Anna Himali Howard, it is a response to the pandemic that stutters at times but also captures the spirit of live theatre on screen.
Much of the drama is contained in its stagecraft: Shankho Chaudhuri’s abstract set is clean and haunting, with doors and windows often illuminated to delineate the boundary between inside and out, while Jessica Hung Han Yun’s beautiful lighting contains a painterly quality playing with light and dark, along with more urgent light flashes of melodrama.
The first and most accomplished play is Deborah Bruce’s monologue, Guidesky and I. It is the least static of the three, featuring Diana (Samantha Spiro), a middle-aged women whose mother has just died; she is left with the job of clearing out her home on her own.
Soaked in loneliness and grief, she rails against the smaller forces around her, picking a battle with a company who refuses to give her a refund for a shoddy “cat cave” she ordered online. Email exchanges are spoken aloud, and in these scenes she resembles the officious letter writer in Alan Bennett’s A Lady of Letters, with the same displaced emotions that stop her from dwelling on the immensity of her mother’s loss, her own grief, and her raft of regrets and self-recriminations in midlife.
She is not so much a woman in conversation with herself as someone narrating her smallest anxieties, with all the attending minutiae. Sometimes these are tedious, but they build to larger sorrows. Spiro gives a powerful performance as a tight-faced curmudgeon who suddenly softens in moments of vulnerability, self-loathing, or wistfulness as she remembers a long-ago romance.
When the Daffodils, written by Joel Tan, is a two-hander featuring a friendship between young and old characters, but it feels far slower and haltingly performed. Meg (Ishia Bennison) is an older woman stuck indoors, and Samia (Jessica Murrain) appears to be a government carer who visits her, though this role is never fully explained.
The characters are living in a lockdown, but this pandemic is not our own; there are suggestions of a world that is far more authoritarian, in which Meg may be reported to the government for her desire to venture out. It has the germ of a very interesting dystopia, but it seems not fully realised.
Joe White’s Ursa Major is the last of the trio, and contains pathos and laughs, despite its sometimes jarring script and characterisation. This two-hander is also about an unlikely connection between a young and old character, but feels truer and more engaging with a winning performance by Fisayo Akinade as Jay, an academic with OCD who comes across the very quirky Callisto (Sasha Winslow), a woman with blue hair who lives in a tent in the park, and insists she is not “homeless” but “houseless”.
He invites her into his flat and gives her a meal, but it is Calisto who, in their moment of connection, seems to save him from his sadness. As a drama, it is heavy on exposition and backstories, and the script has an intimacy that just feels unconvincing (he tells her about his sudden erection in the bath not long after meeting her). But its humour is its salvation, and it gathers an unexpected power by the end.