Last summer at Latitude I was introduced to two explosive pieces of writing from performance poet Sabrina Mahfouz, full of vigour and vim. What Chef and With A Little Bit Of Luck occasionally lacked in structure they more than made up for in their vibrancy, originality and astonishing performances at the heart of them. So I was expecting something similar from her latest work The Love I Feel Is Red but was instead confronted with something tonally different. Quiet and as delicate as a feather blowing through the wind it is a touching exploration of grief but slight; like a not fully satisfactory short story; and it struggles to move through the gears.
Mona and Janet come from very different worlds. Mona (Janet Etuk) is a free runner Susan (Heather Williams) a former swimmer who now likes to bake. These two women’s only connection is a man: Mona’s lover, Janet’s son who has recently been killed in an accident. Grief is what has driven them together, two souls who don’t really have anything to say to each other until midway through a revelation allows them to both open up about traumatic events that connects them in a different way.
Without revealing what the event that links these two women is, it is something that as a man I can only empathise with and will never know what it actively feels like. So perhaps the lack of an emotional response to the piece was down to this, at no point did I feel a gut punch or a hand reaching down and tugging at my entrails like the best drama does. If it left me feeling rather unmoved it is fair to say that there were others who had a much more visceral response to it then I.
Though my gut reaction may be as much down to my sex as anything but there are technical problems that also became evident over 50 minute. What makes Mahfouz stands out as a writer is her astounding turn of phrase which turns language into a thrilling, dizzying, full blooded thing full of sound and fury. Like the plays overall tone, this has been flattened here. Etuk’s Mona has moments when the language tumbles out of her, full of colour and makes you prick up and take notice but because the characters take a while to reveal their feelings the language is tentative for too long and the subtext between the words does not appear to be Mahfouz’s forte.
Nel Crouch’s direction, after a year spent in residency at Tobacco Factory Theatres, is sensitive to the pieces overall tone but feels suffocated and constrained in the tiny performance space of the Zion Community Centre. There are one or two lovely moments in her work, a hug that is held as the lights fade and a kettle comes to a boil, subtle shifts in the lighting palette that are barely perceptible to the eye but dictate the overall mood. There’s signs of a talented and rigorous director here but somehow it doesn’t feel like an exact fit between director and text.
There is a powerful piece of writing getting lost under its delicate frame. A little more kick in both writing and production and it would make for a more thorough investigation of the traumas at its heart.