views from the gods

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The Lighthouse
The Space
16th January 2016

★★★★☆

Publicity image for The Lighthouse

Photography provided by The Space

We've all taken down the decorations, winced at the impossibly high figure on the scales (how did that happen?) and trotted back to work after a week or two of stuffing our faces and watching bad television. What a difference a month makes: despite what the calendar suggests, Christmas now feels like it was a lifetime ago. If you're in need of a bit of unseasonably festive cheer, Rachael Claye's The Lighthouse will bring a smile to your face. It's heartwarming without being overly saccharine. Claye appears very aware of how easy it would be to ramp up the Disney factor too far and instead tempers this extraordinary little story with plenty of ordinary limitations.

When a cantankerous old man with a beard called Nikolas (Rafe Beckley) mysteriously turns up on Christmas Eve with a busted sleigh, an empty sack and a bad mood, it seems less a case of foreshadowing and more of Claye telling us exactly what to expect. We're going to get something Christmassy, and probably with a twist or two and a happy ending. Or maybe that's just what home alone 14-year-old Rose (Annabel Smith) desperately wants. She comes across as happy enough when we meet her, full of an optimism that won't quit, however this little lighthouse dweller isn't without some big problems and the arrival of Nikolas looks like a perfect solution. Over the course of the 80 minutes, the bleak truth of Rose's situation is gradually revealed.

Faye Bradley's lighthouse set dominates the theatre, making full use of the former church's height and bringing the edges of the water close to the audience. We could almost be floating nearby ourselves. Anna Sbokou's lighting immediately shrouds the tall structure in dark shadows and murky sea green and blue colours, as Keri Danielle Chesser creates the sound of the ocean crashing against the rocks and ice. The combination of the design, lighting and sound makes for a stunning first impression, and one which doesn't leave us. The long ropes which extend up to the ceiling give the lighthouse a sense of shape, and the planks of wood which transform into different pieces of furniture hint at the quirkiness of the building and its original keeper. From a pure visual perspective, you couldn't ask for more.

Initially director Danielle McIlven draws us in with the grandeur and ambition of the design as bait, yet it's the warmth between the two protagonists which keeps us interested. Whilst Nikolas is a grumpy sort who has somewhere else he needs to be, as much as he finds Rose irritating, he feels unable to simply leave her, grateful for her obvious kind intentions and cognisant of her loneliness. Rose is playing at being a hostess, with the day-to-day very much a game for her, because if she were to acknowledge the seriousness of it all, it would be too painful. Nikolas is a welcome distraction as well as a potential saviour. The two characters have had their lives unexpectedly intertwined and having now found each other, they need each other.

Smith bounds around the set, clambering up and down the spiral staircase, her movement always imbued with a childlike energy and her eyes sparkling with excitement. As for Beckley, he has an even bigger gap to transcend between his normal playing age and his character's age, but this isn't a problem either. The way he addresses Smith's character is measured and honest. You sense adults and children are the same to him, and given the vast difference between their ages and his, you can understand why.

Claye's script raises a number of questions, some of which I don't want or need answered - to fill in the blanks would take away from the magic. There are however others which niggle, such as who Nikolas's boss really is, and what will happen if he fails to deliver. Although the dialogue between Nikolas and Rose is naturalistic, Nikolas' musings and flashbacks don't feel as emotional.

Whilst you could be forgiven for thinking the programming of The Lighthouse was an afterthought, actually, it feels all the more uplifting and joyful for being scheduled when perhaps it shouldn't be. An unexpected treat lovingly crafted with ambition, brilliance and charm.

The Lighthouse opened on 9th January and runs until 31st January 2016 at The Space.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)



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