From left, Yolanda Kettle, Paul Rattray and Lorna Brown in 'Little Light'
From left, Yolanda Kettle, Paul Rattray and Lorna Brown in 'Little Light'

If you’ve ever wondered what Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? might look like if it had been written by the Irish playwright Enda Walsh, wonder no longer. Alice Birch, the actual writer here, acknowledges the debt of her early piece (now revised) to Walsh’s propensity “to lock [his characters] in rooms and let them go nuts”, which is more or less what happens here. The obsessive ritual, the arrival of an outsider who forces a fundamental re-evaluation, even the collapse of one of the walls that enclose the location, are all Walshian tropes.

In the case of Little Light these are overlaid on the basic situation of a couple permanently grieving for a lost child and taking out the years of festering negativity on a pair of guests. The only difference to the set-up of Virginia Woolf is that Birch’s couple, unlike Edward Albee’s, are mourning an actual child rather than an imaginary one.

Birch’s style of dialogue, however, is very much her own. As she showed in her piece Revolt. She said. Revolt again. for the Royal Shakespeare Company last year, she has a keen ear for natural spoken rhythms, and an ability to keep her characters conversing rapidly while inhabiting quite separate, and identifiable, psychological landscapes. The opening scene here shows off these skills to fine effect: Teddy (Paul Rattray) attempts to open up the couple’s coastal farmhouse to let in both literal and metaphorical light, while Alison (a fearsomely focused Lorna Brown) remains dedicated to her own suffering and to sharing it with all comers. Alison’s sister Clarissa, arriving for an annual dinner of recrimination, has had the effrontery to become pregnant herself, and is moreover followed by her boyfriend (the ever-excellent Paul Hickey), who has the patience of a saint — but even that is not inexhaustible.

David Mercatali, who has made a name by directing the work of Philip Ridley, keeps both the pace and the emotional pitch well up; Madeleine Girling wraps the entire Orange Tree in-the-round space in builders’ polythene, which both indicates the work in progress on the farmhouse and blurs the edges of the psychological space.

To March 7, orangetreetheatre.co.uk

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