The Bruntwood Prize is arguably British Theatre’s most essential prize (and not just because last time out Brizz fave Timothy X Attack won with Sharon Clarke receiving a judge’s recommendation). It’s premise that any unperformed script can be submitted by a writer at any point in their careers means that the quality is sky high. Anna Jordan, Simon Fritz and Alistair McDowell have been discovered from it. Yet ultimately what stands out is the range of stories told, free of a commission that sends writers down avenues they may not wish to explore. A rom-com, magical realist, storytelling indie set in Newport, Alan Harris’ How My Light Is Spent is certainly an original.
Jimmy is 34, works at the only drive-through doughnut shop in Wales, still lives at home and calls a sex line for exactly nine minutes every Wednesday night when his Mum heads out to the Salvation Army. Kitty lives with her older landlord, has a passion for snooker and aims to save the money she makes talking dirty to study psychology at University. Jimmy usually takes exactly three minutes to hit a climax on the phone. Kitty finds out more about her client in the other six prescribed minutes he has to pay for. Jimmy takes orders from the Autocom at work until he hears a voice he has heard before. Kitty altruistically leaves money for the car behind to make their own doughnut order.
It’s a small piece designed as a real crowd pleaser. It occasionally lacks in sophistication, it’s metaphor that Jimmy is literally disappearing after he loses his drive-thru job to a machine is perhaps a little too on the nose and some of the lines have that same thudding feeling, but it is rare to see a play prove so hopeful and determined to give a happy ending whatever the cost.
What Nikhil Vyas’ production brings out is the power of two performers totally in sync with each other. It is hard not to fall in love with Jonathan Oldfield’s ruffled Jimmy and Eva O’Hara’s sex line worker Kitty. The two possess such an easy-going charm with each other, whether shifting from chorus playfully teasing the odd stumble to the rounded valley cadences of these two lost souls that you are rooting for them from lights up.
The piece may eventually end up focusing more on Oldfield’s Jimmy then O’Hara’s Kitty who can feel a little like a Newport version of a manic pixie dream girl, but O’Hara brings her vividly to life as well as the other women (mother, daughter, job coach) that swarm around Jimmy’s life. Both of them may be too attractive and vivacious to really convince as weathered, forgotten ‘been around the block a few times’ souls but the moment they dance together in the space, joy flooding every pore, it’s clear these two are meant to be.
There are a number of striking moments like this in Vyas’ production that pushes its theatrical effects to the max. When the two speak on the phone, they talk through microphones, a distancing effect that separates the easy-going patter of their speech, with the physical tension that befalls them when they first come face to face. He understands that this is a work for voices, and stages the last scene in the fading light as the two decide their future in a car park. As space bleeds to black, the voices grow softer and more hypnotic through the mics. It’s a beautifully realised piece of direction that helps turn a scene that feels a bit tacked on (there is an argument the play could have finished 20 minutes earlier with a tighter, though less feel-good ending) into something beautiful.
It’s a fitting end to another fascinating director’s cuts season. For some of the smartest work, created by some of the industry players of the future, the Wardrobe Theatre is the place to be every May.
How My Light Is Spent is at Wardrobe Theatre until 25 May