Theatre’s most long-standing and consistent contribution to our understanding of the world may be its continuing exploration of the duality of comedy and tragedy – and, through it, much more besides.
Profoundness and levity, selfishness and selflessness, wisdom and ignorance, lunacy and lucidity: drama teaches us that none of these pairs should be seen solely as opposites. And, as in this production of Matt Fox’s To Sleep by Bristol’s The Lesser-Heard Voice, good theatre can also show us adeptly that when our tears fall, it is rarely wholly for sadness – nor ever purely for joy.
There can be few more difficult subjects to tackle than a suicide pact, particularly interwoven with the story of a sexually shaded relationship between a 39-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl; even less when both have separately experienced personal tragedy on a truly momentous scale. It is testament to the strong performances of both Daniel Smith and Lucinda Davidson that, despite the intimacy of a small theatre, the play can still be just as funny as it is inescapably sad.
From their initial awkward exchanges to the heartfelt embrace of their wretched final moments together, the pair steadily build a level of intensity that is regularly punctured by strings of cruel jokes but then promptly reinflated to more disconcerting proportions, crying out to be burst open for good.
Much of the strength of Fox’s writing comes in its exploration of our capacity for compassion and moral clarity when our place within the world has lost any meaning and direction. Both Martin and Hayley have no respect for themselves, but find plenty in their assessment of the other. Each dismisses the rationale behind the other’s suicidal motivations, but refuses to allow this mirror to be held to their own faces.
But differences between the pair are telling too. Their eleventh-hour discovery of fellowship and affection affects their sense of direction very differently, and the play’s real moral ambiguity disconcertingly surfaces in the very last moments, when decisive actions come from selfless and responsible motivations – but will leave their subject feeling as lonely and betrayed as is conceivable.
The ‘black comedy’ label is far too often applied to plays that are merely both indelicate and unfunny – but not here. Awkward laughter is a somehow both delicious and barely palatable dish, but director Don Rjorke serves it well, and there are painful but genuine laughs here about sex, cider, Saville and suicide.
These characters are lonely but likable, despite their manifest faults, and we are charmed by their mutual craving for the warmth and affirmation provided by the affections of another despite the ever-looming realisation of their grisly pact. The little stage craft that was on show was executed well too, with even the posters telling their own little dark jokes at the back of the stage and the costumes contributing to a well-orchestrated scene where the pair dressed for their deaths with the solemn intimacy of a long-term couple on the morning of a reluctantly-attended wedding.
If their plans go ahead, the production will soon tour: and it’ll be interesting to see how it is received elsewhere.
To Sleep is at the Alma Tavern Theatre until Friday, June 24. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.almataverntheatre.co.uk/theatre/what-s-on