Photo credit: Big Big Sky (Photo by Robert Day)

'Big Big Sky' serves up compelling thoughts on humanity

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Big Big Sky is the ample name given the lovingly conceived new Hampstead Downstairs play by Tom Wells that somewhat overreaches for an effect that Tessa Walker's production doesn't entirely achieve. Telling of the shifting fortunes of four denizens in a cafe in Kilnsea, East Yorkshire - familiar terrain for this writer - the play catches human behaviour on the wing without quite transporting the playgoer to the state of theatrical grace that would seem to be the goal.

Dispensing vegan brownies and hard-won philosophy in equal measure, Angie (Jennifer Daley, delivering the play's standout performance) presides over the ebb and flow of humanity on the one hand (this is a woman fully acquainted with loss), alongside the goings-on in the bird-watching world that draw people to her eatery, and to this quiet corner of rural England. Overhead activity very much defines the daily routine of the tern-focused new arrival to their midst, Ed (a deliberately gormless Sam Newton), who has scarcely set foot in Angie's shop on the cusp of its winter closure before striking up an alliance with Lauren (Jessica Jolleys), the prickly-seeming teenage daughter of cafe denizen Dennis (Matt Sutton).

While Angie keeps Dennis fed on pasties and beans (he's always ready for leftovers), we're made aware of quiet acts of generosity: Ed busies himself putting wheels on Angie's cafe sign and is an eco-warrior in embryo prone to citing Greta, whose surname in context (Thunberg, as you will have guessed) needs no identification. A landscape of loss - a nesting ground for the terns gets trampled - allows equal room for rebirth, a pregnant Lauren going into labour as events proceed at a surprisingly foreshortened clip. We hear of families poleaxed by grief but also of multiple opportunities of healing in a play that put me in mind of early Robert Holman (Making Noise Quietly, especially) without ever being quite as moving as you keep wanting it to be.

The distinct beats of the characters' lives start to take on a familiar hue, and the emotions bubbling away beneath the purposefully quotidian surface tend to be very much on the nose. The leisureliness of the pacing somewhat palls over time: we're not actually in Chekhov territory here, notwithstanding Wells's commendable insistence on allowing quietude to leave its own imprint: "everyone leaves marks," Angie remarks at one point, as if speaking for her author.

Bob Bailey's lovely set comes with a chalkboard enumerating the various bird sightings that have been made thereabouts, and Ed's inclusion within this enclosed community works as an equivalency of sorts for an audience that will itself have very little direct knowledge of the specific topography on display.

It therefore comes as a bit of a structural jolt when a play that has to that point preferred a glancing perspective on things devolves into one showdown or other (between Lauren and Dennis, by way of example) that feels a shade manufactured: that leaves Jolleys in particular struggling to align Lauren's occasional stridency as written with something more sympathetic. Perhaps it's the cafe setting that helped feed such thoughts, but I exited Big Big Sky impressed with the capacious humanity on view while wondering with regard to its actual content whether that's all there is.

Big Big Sky is at Hampstead Downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre to 11 September.

Photo credit: Big Big Sky (Photo by Robert Day)

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