March 2009 Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.
Despite the presence of Russell Tovey I was kind of dreading A Miracle; the reviews have painted it as the most unrelentingly depressing show of all time. It's certainly no walk in the park, and feels a lot longer than its 75 minutes, but not necessarily in a bad way. It's not as depressing as the reviews made out, but frankly the fact that I walked down the stairs after rather than throwing myself down them proves that.
It's the performances which save Molly Davies' debut play from being unrelentingly dark, offering an occasional wry smile and a glimpse of humanity under the bleakness. Set in Norfolk, here a rural hellhole to rival any urban estate, the miracle of the title is a baby, Cara, and she's miraculous because her teenage mother Amy (Kate O'Flynn) tried everything in her power to make herself miscarry, but the child was born healthy anyway. So right from the off, any suggestion from the title of something uplifting is out of the window.
Amy meets Gary (Tovey) an old school friend who would have once considered himself too good for her, being the son of a wealthy farmer; but the farm's gone belly-up, Gary's joined the army, and is back on two weeks' sick leave when he and Amy start a relationship that's mostly about sex and drugs. Meanwhile Gary seems fascinated with the baby, and you wonder if things are going to get very nasty on that front.
Davies' writing may be bleak but it's involving, and the performances are all great. Tovey and O'Flynn spark well off each other, while Gerard Horan is unsettling as Gary's bullying father. Sorcha Cusack provides the touch of warmth as Val, Amy's grandmother who for the most part is responsible for taking care of Cara. Quite aside from his looks I think we've established that I think Russell Tovey's the best stage actor of his generation, and he displays that here. His ability to turn on a sixpence is astonishing; snapping from doe-eyed innocence to psychotic fury and back again to an extent that it's genuinely unnerving. He also jumps between scenes into perhaps the most understated, and consequently most believable, "drunk" acting I've seen for a long time. In thirty years' time he's going to have a "Sir" in front of his name.
The most devastating part of the play was, for me, when the two main characters discussed their dreams of a perfect life. They're heartbreakingly unambitious: Amy wishes she could be a hairdresser, and Gary's suggestion of how to make the wish even wilder is that maybe she could actually own the salon. Patrick Burnier's set has been, to say the least, controversial. It looks amazing, with the space under the Jerwood's high roof resembling a barn, the floor completely covered in dead grass and dirt, and you get into the ominous mood as soon as you enter the space.
However the in-the-round staging has come in for criticism because the various standing sets mean a lot of the action is obstructed from some angles. On seeing the setup, I was reminded of a line in the musical of The Producers: "You've heard of theatre in the round? I invented theatre in the square. Nobody had a good seat." Fortunately, I'd been tipped off by "the internet" that the place to sit was right by the bed, and it turned out to be good advice: No matter where the action took place I had an unobstructed view. Plus I was very close to the World Famous Tovey in tight white boxers, which can't be a bad thing. (In the promo photos, like the one above, Tovey's looked a bit doughier than usual; in the flesh that doesn't seem to be the case, his arms look more muscular if anything. Which apart from being nice to look at, adds a touch of danger since his character borders so often on violence.)
So Lyndsey Turner's production makes good work of a difficult subject matter. Not a play I left in any way uplifted (although the fact that, for now, this marks the end of three months with lots of Tovey-related action may have contributed to the downer in my case) but once I'd had time to take a step back from it on my way home what really stands out is the talent of all involved. I've pretty much thought Tovey was in a league of his own since The Sea last year, but this is the first time I've seen him in a more intimate theatre.
Happily, Russell also seems to have lived up to his own expectations - he's been saying in interviews for ages he wanted a chance to play some darker roles, and the response he's had in this proves he was right about being able to pull it off. Although frankly the final episode of Being Human proved that as far as I was concerned.
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