This Incredible Life is a new surrealistic play by Alan Harris which offers great chemistry between the performers of the production.
Alan Harris’ new play, this two-hander from Canoe Theatre, is a swift departure from a lot of his recent work. The Welsh writer’s penchant for irreverence, central to works like Sugar Baby and How My Light is Spent, is largely left aside in favour of something more tender. This Incredible Life is a sweetly produced hour of theatre about the relationship between an ageing former newspaper journalist and her nephew. Taking place in real-time on the morning of her Hall of Fame ceremony, Mab reflects on her groundbreaking career as a female journalist. Her nephew, Robert, isn’t as enthused. Having grown up with these stories already he now has to contend with a woman who, though strong-willed, is quickly losing her mental faculties to dementia. As those stories are retold for the umpteenth time new revelations begin to emerge for Robert about his family and, crucially, Mab herself.
Irreverence might be sidelined but a Harris trademark not missing from This Incredible Life is surrealism. Nick Bache’s lighting helps achieve this easily enough – we move back and forth between the naturalistic lighting of the real world to the warped colours of Mab’s memories – but the use of video projection is where it’s most keenly felt. Jorge Lizalde’s film-making is solid enough, but the tone of these interludes doesn’t quite match that of the live performance. Their absurdity, coupled with the deliberate hamminess of the cameoing performers, is in jarring contrast to the light humour on stage.
The performances we see on stage are certainly the biggest strength of the play. Sharon Morgan is wonderful to watch as Mab – her comic timing, even in the play’s darker moments, is impeccable. As good as Morgan is, though, it’s Christopher Elson who leaves the biggest impression. The marketing would lead you to believe that Elson is a secondary figure, but his character is the one with the biggest emotional journey and the one we are rooting for at the end. Yes, he is the straight man to Morgan’s clown, but that allows him to put in a performance that is so much more nuanced and engaging.
The key to what makes This Incredible Life successful is the chemistry between the two performers, and a lot of that has to do with Julia Thomas’ direction. That strained familial relationship between Mab and Robert feels organic, something that can only come from a concentrated rehearsal process. It has the desired domino effect. Strong chemistry enhances the actors’ interactions on stage and improves the delivery of the dialogue that, at times, can be pretty unengaging. There’s something much safer about her design choices, including a naturalistic set courtesy of Pete Lochery and Aberystwyth Arts Centre and appropriately light music from Richard Barnard.
Safe would be a good way to describe the production as a whole. This Incredible Life isn’t incredible, but it’s not terrible either. It sits very comfortably somewhere in the middle. Perhaps it’s a bad thing that it doesn’t try to offer something new in its subject matter or its presentation but, frankly, that approach works for it. What you get is a pleasant hour in the company of two good actors doing justice to an engaging, if sometimes dawdling, script.
This Incredible Life tours the following venues:
The Met, Abertillery: 03/10/18
Chapter, Cardiff/Caerdydd: 04 + 05/10/18
Ysgol Aberconwy, Conwy: 08/10/18 – Tickets / Tocynnau: 01492 593243
Pontio, Bangor: 09/10/18
Edward Christian-Hare is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.