views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Firefly Heartbeat
The Hope Theatre
7th May 2015

★★★☆☆

James Sutherland and Kellie Jane Walters as Stuart and Madeleine

Photography provided by Bambidan Productions

Conservatory, candle stick, Dr Black and Miss Scarlett - no prizes for guessing what's going to happen in there. Hooker, nervous guy, seedy room, lots of cash... well... the night in that scenario doesn't quite pan out as you might expect. In Edward Davenport's intriguing play Firefly Heartbeat, journalist Stuart (James Sutherland) hesitantly meets sex worker Madeleine (Kellie Jane Walters) and seemingly just wants to talk. And talk. And then some. Madeleine has been on the game long enough to have seen it all, but a punter who wants to listen to her chat about her childhood? That's new.

Rosie Motion's set has deliberate signs of disrepair and a distinct lack of storage, but despite appearances this isn't a bedsit in London. The action instead takes place half way around the world in Australia's Kings Cross, an area which shares one similarity to our St Pancras back in the day with some Soho thrown in, if you catch my drift. The bottles of nail polish and odds and sods of make up lying around are less to do with who Madeleine is, and more to do with the image of who she has to be. There are a few touches of personality buried in the clutter and in the brightly coloured fairy lights strung up along the headboard, but make no mistake, this is a pokey flat in which men pay to have sex with Madeleine. That's the grim truth.

Davenport attempts to build tension by reserving secrets and drip-feeding us clues, sometimes in an overly repetitive fashion. Director Mario Demetrio doesn't seem to be able to smooth over this, with the pacing uncomfortably slow in the transition between the initial set-up and the real substance to the play. It's a shame, because once we get past that clunky middle dip, things take a distinct turn for the more interesting. Initially Madeleine is closed off, snarky and playful, but as Stuart probes her about her past and she gradually lets little details slip, we see the person and not just the job.

When we first encounter Madeleine, she's so reluctant to reveal anything about her own life, dehumanising herself into something which merely fulfils a function. Stuart's line of questioning is forceful, but given he's a journalist, it seems par for the course and anyway, we want to know the answers too. Both characters are relatively calm, determined to get to the end of the encounter still in control, but in a gritty two-hander like this, you know at least one of them is going to lose. Suffice to say, by the time the metaphorical curtain falls, you've seen another side to both. Sutherland may be intentionally quite awkward and stilted when he first enters the brothel, but he too shows us more depth as the storyline marches on.

Madeleine's sarcasm is a clear defence mechanism and also frequently a device to cut through the sheer bleakness of the story. It feels odd to laugh so much in a tale woven with guilt and misery - it's chuckle or cry and I prefer leaving a theatre not looking like a sad panda with mascara streaks below my eyes. As Walters reveals her character's hidden vulnerability, there's a very raw and emotional quality to her acting. There's a marked contrast between her body language and spoken dialogue, with far more power in what isn't said.

Speaking of things which aren't said, this is one of those productions where you really shouldn't say too much. To do so would be to risk spoiling its impact. A story involving a prostitute rarely ends well (Vivian Ward may be the only one to have a happy ever after) but Firefly Heartbeat does travel to some dark places, and as such, it's a challenging piece.

Firefly Heartbeat opened on 5th May and runs until 23rd May 2015 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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