Light Falls marks the end of an era at the Royal Exchange Theatre. It is Sarah Frankcom‘s final directorial piece as Artistic Director, before becoming the director of LAMDA. She began her tenure at LAMDA by cutting audition fees by 75%, showing just what a fantastic asset she is to the theatre industry. She will be sorely missed at the Royal Exchange, and it seems fitting that her swansong is written by Simon Stephens. Most notable for his stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, they have collaborated together several times before.
The play itself is beautiful. It’s a profoundly powerful and deeply tender exploration of love, grief, loss, and loneliness. However, the main reason I bought my ticket was to listen to the play’s ‘original music’ composed by Jarvis Cocker. Since it is plastered all over the marketing for Light Falls, my expectations were high and I was left disappointed.
The play begins with an alcoholic mother, Christine (Rebecca Manley), in her local Co-op, preparing to buy some vodka. In his trademark style, Stephens’ script is exquisitely packed with microscopic details, as Christine browses the supermarket looking for the spirit aisle. The instantaneous overload of information brilliantly mirrors how overwhelming modern life can be, but also means that Light Falls is a play that you have to truly mentally invest in. It’s not one to watch if you feel tired.
As she reaches for the vodka, Christine dies from a brain aneurysm. Rather than her life flashing before her eyes, she gets to metaphysically visit the members of her family one more time before she dies. Her journey is one that transcends the north of England, from Durham to Blackpool, as Christine gets to witness what her family are doing at the exact moment that she is taking her last breaths.
Her husband, Bernard (Lloyd Hutchinson), is having an affair with two women. Her only son, Steven (David Moorst) is on a date with his boyfriend. Daughter Jess, (Witney White) has just woken up next to a complete stranger. Meanwhile, Ashe (Katie West) is a single parent who is struggling with depression.
The play’s narrative time frame is set across a single evening, introducing snapshots of everyday life and relationships. Love, conflict, and heartache are beautifully explored, along with profound sorrow and grief. Light Falls simultaneously renders the tenderness and the hardships of human relationships, delivering a powerful message of unity that is both heartfelt and life-affirming.
The lives of each family member are juxtaposed and their experiences are depicted in fragments, as the action bounces from one couple to the next. This means the play is initially confusing and it takes a good half an hour to establish who the characters are, and what their relationships are to each other. This is alleviated in the second half, and more time is given to developing the characters. However I can’t help feeling that this would have been beneficial from the start, as the first half of the play is impenetrable, diminishing my connection to most of the characters.
The only character I truly empathised with is Ashe, partly because it feels that she is the only one granted any opportunity of development in the script, but mainly as a result of Katie West‘s sublime performance. She steals the show, delivering an utterly heart-wrenching depiction of a single mother struggling between bouts of suicidal depression, and the overwhelming love she feels for her young son.
Notably, Ashe is also the only character to have a conversation with Christine’s spirit. This poignant scene is beautifully rendered by the two actors, whose emotions range from astonishment to sorrow. Unfortunately, the intimacy of the parting is spoiled by the distance between the two actors on stage.
The Royal Exchange’s famous round stage has been transformed into a thrust stage for Light Falls, as a wooden structure of giant steps occupies the space where seats would usually be. Naomi Dawson‘s stage design is visually arresting, creating various levels, and adding distance to these couples that are geographically spread across the north. However, I had my sight-lines blocked whenever someone sat on the wooden block downstage, which caused me to miss hugely tender moments of the play.
Sarah Frankcom‘s direction has moments of stunning beauty, namely the stunning imagery before the interval, as rain strikingly pours from the ceiling, drenching each family member. However, some of her directional choices don’t work as well. Characters are statically positioned, having conversations with each other. Some of these happen on opposite sides of the stage, meaning that their conversions are relayed over a vast space. Whilst this works well in argumentative segments, it creates a distance during the more tender moments. As an audience member, it can sometimes feel like you’re watching a tennis match. A deeply emotional scene is also spoiled because Lloyd Hutchinson sits on the wooden block, with his back to a third of the audience.
As I mentioned earlier, I bought my ticket to Light Falls based on the fact that Jarvis Cocker had composed ‘original music’ for it. This turns out to be a single song, Hymn of the North, of which only a few verses are performed in a chorus, not by him. There is scarcely any musical accompaniment to the play. Considering that Jarvis Cocker’s name gets mentioned on all the advertising, I expected his music to be a substantial part of the play. I feel misled and short-changed that it is a fleeting few lines of verse sung by the cast. If you want to watch this for Jarvis Cocker’s musical input, prepare to be mightily disappointed.