views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

This is Living
Trafalgar Studios
19th May 2016


Tamla Kari and Michael Socha as Alice and Michael

Photography © Alex Harvey-Brown

Alice (Tamla Kari) is friendly, bubbly, warm and full of life. Except, she's really not. Well, not anymore. In Liam Borrett's This Is Living, he starts with a tragic ending, leaving us with nowhere to go but back in time, detailing Alice's past with her doting husband, Michael (Michael Socha). It's all a bit River Song (with quite a lot of actual river), with Alice's death a fixed point in time that we know can't be changed and the narrative jumping back and forth in what could be a confusing tangle of scenes. However, this actually increases our attachment to the protagonists, building into a glorious crescendo of emotion. Although we may not care that much when we first learn of Alice's passing, by the end of the production, we're utterly heartbroken for the couple and their daughter.

Michael and Alice soon settle into a familiar routine, meeting up by the riverbank to discuss how their little girl is getting on and exchange idle chit chat. Their body language relaxes and whilst they don't quite speak in code, their choice of dialogue becomes increasingly personal to them as a couple. They trade jokes that might not make much sense to outsiders, they share morbid humour that might be taken the wrong way by someone else. There's an obvious intimacy in the couple's easy interactions, with Kari and Socha demonstrating a very natural on-stage chemistry.

With the couple so close, you could almost forget that Alice was dead if not for Sarah Beaton's deliberately waterlogged raised set and the oppressive soundscape by Daffyd Gough and Sean Gallacher. Water is ever-present, with squelching, sliding and damp patches on clothes. Every time the actors sit on the floor, they become soggier and soggier, unfazed by what must be quite uncomfortable and difficult conditions in which to perform. The water reminds us of the stark reality trying to permeate each scene: as hard as it is to believe with his wife in front of us, Michael is a widower.

Not only do Kari and Socha manage to not physically slip on the wet stage, they never once slip in their seamless transition between emotions. As both writer and director, Borrett is simply relentless here, having his actors howl with grief then suddenly switch to a scene packed full of hearty laughter. With the staging so simple, Jackie Shemesh's atmospheric lighting plays a key role in setting each new scene and she doesn't allow for any extended blackouts in which the actors can take a moment to compose themselves. Instead, she transports them straight to the next location. You would forgive the odd mistake, however Socha and Kari glide between the different moods required of them with a staggeringly impressive control.

As the audience become more and more invested in the couple, chuckles become decidedly tinged with sniffles and awkward giggles begin to break tense moments. Although it's quite clear when the play ends, a spontaneous round of applause before that point indicates the audience's affection for the doomed couple. Borrett makes his protagonists simple, honest, folk with simple values that even if we don't share, we can respect and admire. In short, he steals all promise of a happy ending then endears them to us, to devastatingly cruel but clever effect.

Ultimately, This Is Living is a tale about learning how to let go. Poignant, upsetting and at times, wonderfully funny, it takes you on such an emotional roller coaster that you'll feel exhausted by the end. It doesn't quite grab us in the first half the way it should, however prepare to be destroyed after the interval.

This is Living opened on 17th May and runs until 11th June 2016 at Trafalgar Studios.

Nearest tube station: Charing Cross (Northern, Bakerloo)

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