FRINGE REVIEW – Hand over fist

*****

by Debbie Cannon

With an award-winning writer and director, and an actress (Joanna Bending) who’s just been nominated for a Stage Award for Acting Excellence in the Best Solo Performer category for her role, this is a play that has everything going for it, and it doesn’t disappoint.

Writer Dave Florez drops us straight into the maelstrom of memories which jostle in the mind of Emily, a dementia-sufferer, as together with her we try to reconstruct the true events with which a romance began. For the bulk of the play we are, if not exactly in Emily’s position, then similarly adrift, as she snatches at the images, snippets of speech, locations, cultural references and emotions that swim briefly back into her horizon before escaping from her again.

Joanna Bending’s performance is one of the great strengths in this one-woman piece. It’s wonderful – full of subtlety, honesty, freshness, and intimacy. She easily engages the audience throughout the fifty-five minutes, making us laugh and rejoice with her, then hang uncomfortably on her quieter moments of conscious confusion. Dave Florez’s script provides great writing for her to work with. Emily’s words are a roller-coaster of colourful comparisons, colloquialisms and poetic diction, mixed in with a crudeness that Bending delivers with endearing, wide-eyed candour. There was a point around three quarters of the way through the play when it felt as though the script had lost its drive, having become tangled up in Emily’s repetitions. There’s no doubt it takes its time to build to a climax. In fact this made the emotional sucker punch which followed shortly afterwards that much more gut-wrenching, as Emily became temporarily anchored and, very briefly, obtained a full realisation of what she had lost.

Even at its emotional peak, the play is admirably unsentimental, partly because the character of Emily is so resiliently upbeat. It’s also largely owing to the tight focus of the story on this one individual and a specific memory she is trying to recapture – it makes the tragedy very personal and consequently more pointed. And while the climax is heartbreaking (I was not the only audience-member shedding tears) its potency derives as much from what it tells us about the endurance of love and about our mortality as it does from Emily’s dementia.

The play is simply staged against a black backdrop, minimising any distraction from the power of the script and performance. Even the screen behind Emily, which is used to depict images from her memory, is sparsely employed until she’s about to leave the stage. Again, this meant that when the flood of remembered images did appear they made a greater impression, but the device did feel a little underused during the performance itself.

This is a powerful piece, entertaining and thought-provoking, beautifully performed and skilfully crafted.

20-27 August, 13:55 (55 mins) at Pleasance Courtyard

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