By Sophie Lomax
One Flea Spare
Wickham Theatre, until October 13
Imagine being trapped in a lift with the following nightmare quartet: a children’s TV presenter, Margot Ledbetter, Peter Mandelson and a famished lion. Now you’re halfway to picturing the setting of Naomi Wallace’s viscerally involving play, One Flea Spare.
Director Sue Colverd nimbly weaves together the lives of a nobleman and his wife, a runaway servant girl and a landlocked sailor. They become quarantined together during the dog days of the Black Plague and, inevitably, an unholy clash of class differences, morals and opinions between the four disparate prisoners forced into two dank rooms soon erupts.
So lively and voluble is each trapped character that it’s anyone’s guess as to who will survive the suffocating month with body and soul intact. Secrets are unlaced, sensationally kicked off by revelations from the beautiful nobleman’s wife, Darcy (a lovely, sympathetic Kate Abraham) and absolutely everything is turned on its head.
Added to this is a rapacious and bitter-hearted gaoler (played by Chris Donnelly), prowling around the room and sporting a rapid succession of surreal outfits. He’s increasingly impossible to ignore, eventually being asked: “Where are your clothes and what’s that on your head?” as he relentlessly makes light of the all-engulfing shadow of death hanging over London in 1665.
There’s an ethereal, delicate installation from artist Corinne Hockley, with an outsized dress onto which a dizzying array of captivating images are projected, a collaboration typical of innovative producers Red Dog Theatre and one more enticing aspect of this unsettling show.
The actual script’s a bit of a mouthful, laden with back-story and threaded with paraphrased lines of the poet John Donne, from whose work the play title is taken and who shares the playwright’s attention to the inner lives of ordinary people. It’s also littered with socio-political views whose explicit statements are a mite unnecessary. These could be conveyed much more sparingly by the nuanced performances of a uniformly wonderful cast, who make gossamer-light work of labyrinthine syntax.
But, though dense, it does all make utter sense and the layers of humour and pain, packed tightly together like Viennetta ice cream, make for a tale charged with emotional depth, affecting an entire audience, who reeled out with the ghosts of the Plague visibly lodged inside them.
Box Office Phone Number: 08454 024001