'Graceland' review — Sabrina Wu superbly performs a show better suited for the page
Read our review of Graceland by Ava Wong Davies at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, currently running off the West End through 11 March in London.
Chance meetings are the order of the day onstage, it seems, from Constellations, first seen at the Royal Court and recently revived in the West End, to Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, which has taken its time to get to the West End just now.
But they rarely follow as quietly disturbing a trajectory as that of Graceland, the enigmatically titled solo play now running in the Royal Court’s studio-sized Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. Winner of the 2022 Ambassador Theatre Group Playwright’s prize, the 75-minute monologue brings further recognition, richly deserved, to its playwright, Ava Wong Davies, who has already left a distinguished mark as a theatre critic for this website amongst other outlets.
And line by line, her writing exerts a tidal pull as one is drawn into an anatomy of pain of grief – of an affair gone wrong that doesn’t name names until its final minutes – that makes the potentially familiar resonate (and hurt) afresh. In case you’re wondering, Elvis Presley’s home is nowhere mentioned.
Davies read the text during several previews, which must have been something to behold given the impression one has of a play conceived as catharsis, of making sense of turbulent emotions that risk leaving one nearly unfeeling. (Davies was filling in for her lone performer, who was unwell.)
I saw it by the time Sabrina Wu had returned to the role, which the wonderfully open-faced actress delivers as a kind of stealth bomb in human form. Seen last year lending support to Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor, Wu knows how to handle a physical production that requires her to play to two sides of the house, ratcheting up the tension as she goes.
And from an opening where I feared at first she might not have the vocal chops, Wu is in steady command of the audience throughout, acquiring a fuller, more open-throated voice as the psychic ache on view gathers force.
The character of Nina is a 20something British Chinese woman whose parents run a restaurant in east London, where she has grown up feasting on spare ribs and scuttling amongst the customers. Mischievous but also indrawn, she allows herself to fall for a well-heeled poet whose Ralph Lauren shirt is fraying at the elbows. (The disparity in income and cultures put me in mind of Anoushka Lucas’s solo play Elephant at the Bush last year.)
By play’s end, far more than an item of clothing will be frayed, or worse, as evidenced by a lumpy bed whose linens are scattered during a protracted recollection that finds Nina pulling the duvet around her for solace. The lifting of the mattress reveals more of the soil visible on either side of the platform on which the attic bed is set - an image, presumably, of the residue of a relationship that has turned to ash.
Along the way, we follow the swerves of a courtship begun in teasing that lands someplace quite terrifying. “Now listen,” Nina is told early on, prior to our discovering the details of family and work that amplify this anatomy of a romance done in by class and cruelty. Her fateful reply: “I didn’t.”
Wu seems to visibly harden as her voice rises to fill the space in a production directed by Anna Himali Howard with Izzy Rabey, who joined along the way. Their shared empathy is at all times in evidence.
But I confess to wondering throughout whether Graceland wouldn’t have worked just as well – better, even - as a short story, free of a sense of cumulative fussiness that sustains its iteration onstage.
There’s no denying the invention of Mydd Pharo’s set, which finds Nina at one point clutching at the earth to one side of the playing space in desperation. Anna Clock’s soundscape gives off an ominous thrum, and Jai Morjaria’s expressive lighting punctuates the text, rather as if each lighting cue signalled a fresh chapter. (“The air changes,” we hear, and the lighting seems to change with it.)
But the inclusion of rain near the end — and unnecessary billows of smoke, too — add to a hunch that less just might be more. Davies’s writing is expressive enough not to need all this visual underscoring. Good on the physical details of intimacy, Davies is alive to the separate woes of solitude and togetherness, and the play has a French existentialist feel to its final passage, a commingling of sorts prompted by tears whose eloquent spareness is worthy of Sartre. I was happy to see the play; I’ll be happier still to read it.
Graceland is at the Royal Court through 11 March.
Photo credit: Sabrina Wu (Photo by Ali Wright)
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