Friday, August 9, 2019

Review: 'River in the Sky' at The Hope Theatre, 8th August 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

Dealing with grief is like preparing a house for a tornado. You're scurrying around, boarding up the doors and windows of your mind to create a safe haven where the horror cannot reach you. You need time in this cocoon to build the courage to face your new reality: one that will forever be absent of the person you loved.

Peter Taylor's River in the Sky puts this process on stage, showing us a couple struggling to deal with the death of their newborn baby. Played by Lindsey Cross and Howard Horner, the pair had been dealing with fertility issues and miscarriages for so long that the joy of anticipation of being a parent was replaced with grim nervousness: "what's going to go wrong this time?". Then, miracle of miracles, they have a baby boy. The world is sunshine and roses, right up until an undiagnosed genetic heart condition randomly kills him. 

Sucks to be them.

The play picks up some time later, with the woman having retreated to an isolated cottage to grieve and the man returning to work in an effort to maintain a normal life. By the time we meet them they're shadows of their former selves. Their interactions are artificial, as if they're performing bad cover versions of their original personalities. These people will never be what they once were, but can they recover enough of themselves to move forward?

River in the Sky sensibly shies away from portraying grief as tearing of hair and renting of clothes. There's not even that many tears. What we get here is a bleak numbness: jokes made to a blank reception, small talk about biscuits to break the silence, and a palpable physical hollowness that comes with sleepless nights and low appetite.

Their coping mechanism for busting through this is to retreat into storytelling. Cross' character wears a Harry Potter top and is an author, with her partner apparently similarly enthusiastic about fantasy. To deal with their emotions they concoct an allegorical story in which their baby son is some kind of fantastical griffin creature who has been devoured by a slimy, black many-tentacled sea monster.

It's here that the play lost me. Using metaphor to deal with difficult subjects isn't exactly unusual, but I wanted to feel more raw emotion rather than the characters essentially tiptoeing around what they're feeling. Plus, this leads directly into an overly sentimental finale in which the parents get to talk with the ghost of their infant son, who unfortunately speaks in creepy falsetto.

But this is a wobble rather than the play completely going off the rails. The whole enterprise is anchored by Cross and Horner's nicely multi-layered performances. Though they begin the play isolated from one another we can clearly see the old conversational grooves that couples slide into when they've spent so much time together. It makes the moments where they snap at each other painful, we can tell they are hurting one another because even anger is preferable to the suffocating numbness.

River in the Sky isn't an easy watch, but anyone who's suffered loss will find much to recognise here. This can't be easy to write or perform, but successfully capturing the essential truth of these emotions is no mean feat. 

River in the Sky is at The Hope Theatre until 24 August. Tickets here.

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