Upon being ushered into the Michael Pilch Studio for Notorious Cow Productions’s fascinating performance of Abi Morgan’s 2011 play Lovesong, the first thing you see are the dead, autumnal leaves scattered across the floor of the seating area. Next you hear them as you walk over to seat. Then you realise the scale of the set for the play. Although the Pilch advertises itself as a Black Box theatre, Lovesong has a large set for a student production, with a kitchen, dining table, bed and even a tree attached to a pillar between the two sets of seats. It’s a set of epic proportions for a dreamlike memory of a house, and it works brilliantly for the tone and feel of the production.
Every part of Lovesong is ambitious and daring, from the set that each individual sees the moment they enter the studio, to the latex makeup half the four-person cast has to wear as they play characters well into their 70s, to the incorporation of athletic, performative theatre into the production, to the lengthy, 90 minute run without an interval, to the very nature of the show itself. Set in one house, it shows a newly-wed couple, played by Laurence Belcher and Chloé Delanney explore their life together as they arrive over the course of a number of years; and the same couple decades later, played by Adam Goodbody and Miranda Collins, as they deal with growing old. From the opening monologue onwards the two eras intertwine in a dreamlike fashion, as, with rare and deliberate exceptions, scenes involving one couple do not end without the next couple already existing on the stage. Frequently events intersect as two scenes playout simultaneously, with youth and age intersecting and interacting in unusual and illuminating ways. Details are slowly revealed-it takes over 20 minutes for the husband Billy’s job to be confirmed-and some key details are deliberately left vague and undefined for as long as possible, forcing the audience to react to the representation of moments over a long story. But the story of Billy and Maggie and William and Margaret is there, as is a sense of progression for the lives of those they interact with, and one of the joys of Lovesong is piecing together this from Morgan’s precisely wandering script, where phrases and moments echo forwards and backwards through time as it places its couple together. However, even at its most surreal, a wry humour is found throughout fitting the domestic household.
Of course, Morgan’s script would struggle without a strong performance, and Notorious Cow are able to provide this. The cast is strong, and with each actor only being able to provide half a character, their performances rely strongly on every other actor to create a world of multiple moments. Whilst the standout performance for me was Miranda Collins as the elder Maggie, who performs a heartfelt performance with the added difficulty of playing a women significantly older than herself, each performer is able to create intense moments, and works well both with their marital partner, with whom they interact with in an intensely personal manner and their temporal partner, where both the sense of the changes of time and of the continuity between each of them is highlighted in a close relationship. Directors Luke Wintour and Alex Rugman enhance these performances with a strong sense of space and movement, creating a space in which both the sense of the individuals and the house that binds them together is realised wonderfully, with help from the precise details of costuming, lighting and sound, and the score.
This isn’t to say that every detail is perfect. Personally, I found some of the dance-like motions between the scenes jarring as Goodbody and Collins moved around with a grace and precision that is otherwise lost for their characters, even as the choreography and performance was strong; and the, admittedly extremely impressive, makeup on the elder couple occasionally became too obvious in certain moments. However, these are the limits of the play’s ambition, and perhaps show the scale of the production instead.
Whilst this review might make Lovesong appear most strongly as strange, surreal and cerebral, the play engaged the audience I was with throughout. After acclimatising the unusual nature of the production, most of the audience were quiet and impressed. To use a crude example, if one that is oddly apt considering the play’s central motif, I checked my watch for the first time after 40 minutes, and when checking it again, expecting about 10 minutes to have passed since before, I found 25 had instead. The sombre, final scenes cast a hush over the audience as the play itself wound to a silent finish.
Ultimately Lovesong’s ambitions suit its themes perfectly, making it an epic of the mundane that celebrates infinite experience, even as it shows the movement of our little time. A play at once about one couple, and the nature of our relationship to life, its domestic sweep fit perfectly with the natural feelings that arise during 8th Week.