Relationships, national disasters, depression and grief. James Fritz tackles these huge subjects and much more in his new play LAVA in a brilliantly packed 85 minutes inside Nottingham Playhouse’s Neville Studio.
An asteroid has hit London. Details of the aftermath are projected onto the upstage wall of the set, we hear personal stories and see characters experiencing grief, but the focus lies on Ted Reilly’s Vin. Vin hasn’t spoken since the disaster and Rach wants to find out why, as does his Mum, Vicky, but Vin refuses help. Jamie, whose mother died in the disaster, talks about his grief, and, well, everything else – but still Vin won’t speak. The play is segmented into five parts, the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and we follow Vin along this journey.
The relationships Fritz creates between all four characters are superbly performed by this ensemble cast. It’s no surprise that the writer of Ross & Rachel creates such a tangible relationship between Reilly’s Vin and Safiyya Ingar’s Rach. Ingar has the audience falling in love with Vin while she does and equally frustrated in his silence, whilst Reilly shows us Vin trying to do everything he can to keep Rach around. Perhaps the strongest relationship in the piece though is between Vicky and Vin. Emma Pallant’s Vicky endures Vin’s silence with selfless maternal resilience, attempting everything she can do to help him whilst we see her heartbreak for her own child’s stubborn resistance. During the penultimate ‘depression’ section, this relationship is tested to the limits as emotions explode and she screams at her own child in desperation for him to speak to her. What is also striking about LAVA is the vast amount of humour in the piece. Fred Fergus’ Jamie provides much of this, as a satire of the typical “gap-yah” Londoner he is dripping with narcissism as he exploits his own grief at every possible moment. At one stage he even produces a guitar and sings a song that was his ‘mum’s favourite’.
In the wake of the one-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the asteroid and its subsequent destruction of London doesn’t feel so farfetched. What Fritz does brilliantly is balance the depth of reverberation a disaster such as this has across the country with the personal effects of those involved, as well as focusing in on how other non-London catastrophes may be equally devastating and go unnoticed – Rach is constantly stating how surroundings of her everyday life, a post box, a swimming pool, miraculously go missing with no-one else seeming to realise.
Amy Jane Cook’s massive set furthers this feeling of absence with a large black crater in the centre of the bare set and another large hole in the upstage left wall. Throughout the play we see Louise Rhoades-Brown’s projections played onto the back wall of the set, detailing the disaster or framing the stage of grief we are about to enter. When entering the depression stage, we see the word literally enter Vin’s body as he lays in the upstage left hole. Although this sparse set emphasises the feeling of disconnect between characters and the impact of the catastrophe on their relationships and day-to-day life, it did perhaps hinder the connection of the audience to the piece. Perhaps the intimacy of the characters’ relationships could have been better served by a thrust or in-the-round staging utilising the central crater, although I acknowledge that the projection would likely have been lost in this latter suggestion.
LAVA is a true sucker punch of a show, it plays with large ideas and a huge range of emotions but is written, produced and performed at the highest level and I expect many others struggled to leave the theatre with dry eyes. Adam Penford’s first show in the Neville Studio is undoubtedly a success. Following on from Wonderland and Shebeen, it’s time to put any anxieties aside and accept that the Playhouse is right back where it should be.