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Big Big Sky, Hampstead Downstairs review - a perfectly realised character study | reviews, news & interviews

Big Big Sky, Hampstead Downstairs review - a perfectly realised character study

Big Big Sky, Hampstead Downstairs review - a perfectly realised character study

This poignant, uplifting play is just what we need right now

Celestial: Sam Newton, Jessica Jolleys, and Jennifer Daley in 'Big Big Sky' Robert Day

Get to Swiss Cottage early because Bob Bailey’s set for Tom Wells's new Hampstead Downstairs play Big Big Sky is a feast for the eyes.

Angie’s cafe has the scrapey chairs, the tables you know will wobble a little if you get that one (and you will) and a blackboard menu that just needs a misplaced apostrophe or two to be truly authentic. The HP sauce is by the till, not next to the salt and pepper; this is Yorkshire after all.

But it’s only just Yorkshire, the Kilnsea cafe being on the edge of the city that’s always described as being on the edge of England - Hull. Were it a few yards on, it would slide from the East Riding into the North Sea. It’s clinging on.

Not much happens beneath the biting winds off the Urals with the exception of the birds soaring above and the birders who come to photograph them. They don’t buy much, purchasing only enough to keep the cafe going from April to October. Angie opens up, cooks, cleans and closes down, assisted by Lauren, a blonde and bubbly teenager who can deliver a Dixie Chicks song like a true Texan.Jessica Jolleys in 'Big Big Sky'When Lauren’s father Dennis turns up for his almost regular end-of-day freebie, you can see he’s there for more than the pasty and beans, and you note that Angie has a little more of the maternal instinct than one might expect. But it’s the arrival of twentysomething Ed that puts the cat amongst the pigeons, his earnest geekishness and down to earth charm the catalyst that shifts the ground under their feet.

Wells and his director, Tessa Walker (in her first gig as Hampstead Associate Director), set themselves the deceptively hard (let’s be honest, very hard) task of placing ordinary people into ordinary events while gripping our attention for 100 minutes or so straight through. One false move - a thought that says, “He wouldn’t say that” or “She wouldn’t do that” - and the cafe slides under the waves, our suspension of disbelief gone. Characters such as these must be wholly believable; 99% is not enough. 

That’s as big an ask for the actors as it is for the writer. Initially, I felt Jessica Jolleys (pictured above) too glamorous for Lauren, but she inhabits the girl with the good sense and generosity so well that you can’t imagine anyone else in the role. There are few hiding places for a recent graduate in a tight studio space and Jolleys is compelling from first to last - a talent definitely to watch. Likewise, it’s tempting to see Sam Newton’s Ed at first as a caricature of an awkward Brummie, but a brilliantly executed slapstick dance routine gets him going and the clichés fall away as the real lad emerges.

Jennifer Daley and Matt Sutton slowly show us the pain they’re carrying, though the writing is so good that it avoids the elephant trap of easy sentimentality and shouting. Sutton is more demonstrative, the vegan roast a threat rather than an opportunity for Dennis, but loneliness is never far from the surface. Daley delivers her slower burn with rare sensitivity, at times heartbreakingly so, with a searing admonishment of unintended insensitivity the highlight of the play. 

There’s little political here beyond Ed’s admiration for Greta: no points made about left behind seaside towns, nothing about the levelling up agenda and barely a hint that the new cafe soon opening in the visitor centre, with its “proper” coffee machine, will attract people from Leeds (i.e. the elite, if you come from Hull).

Yet politics weaves in and out of the substrate of their lives: the pride in the land in which they and their parents grew up; the provincial importance of a local photography competition; the decency people show in helping each other out when most state infrastructure (a hospital included) is 30 miles away. These are lives largely self-contained and, therefore, easy to ignore from the perspective of the cosmopolitan whirligig of property prices and prosecco, but that would be wrong (obviously) and dangerous (less obviously). People who are looked down upon have the habit of rising up.    

There are many components required for a play to work - plot, acting, directing for three - but there’s one overarching indicator of merit that never fails: do I want to find out what happens next? I’ve seldom applauded at the curtain with a greater enthusiasm to return to these two men and two women to see how things turn out, discover how they meet the everyday challenges that lie before them, watch as respect and love grow, even as the inevitable bickering spills over into arguments and more. That, Mr Wells, is how successfully you conjured these people - so don't leave them now!       

Hampstead Theatre to Hull is, in every sense, a stretch, but this beautifully crafted play demonstrates drama’s unique ability to forge the emotional connections that transcend social and physical distance. We’re with them under the big big sky of the Humber estuary because we're with them in their hearts and souls.   

This beautifully crafted play demonstrates drama’s unique ability to forge the emotional connections that transcend social and physical distance


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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Great review - I absolutely loved this play. Tom Wells is a seriously good writer and, although I loved it in the intimate atmosphere of the Downstairs it deserves a much bigger audience.

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