Death is often depicted as darkness descending to obliterate the light. In Simon Stephens’ Light Falls, the protagonist’s final moments are instead defined by a sharp mental and emotional acuity that cuts through a fug of sadness and alcoholism.
Christine (Rebecca Manley) tells us her story in an extended monologue as she goes to buy vodka in her local Co-op. She is, like the northern characters devised by Simon Armitage, Jimmy McGovern and Sally Wainwright, a mixture of both good and bad. She’s flawed and raw and wounded. A wife, mother and grandmother, Christine has made mistakes but cannot atone for them; instead she can only look on and witness events in the lives of her family members who are spread across different northern towns.
The framing of Christine as an ineffectual Scrooge-like ghost could so easily have felt clunky and contrived were it not for the delicate handling of the writing and direction. Stephens is so good at writing dialogue – he captures both the awkwardness of human interaction and the subtext-laced words of undemonstrative northerners crying out to be loved. This dovetails beautifully with Frankcom’s subtle direction, with silences that speak volumes and affection confirmed through a gentle hand placed on a knee.
The production is well-acted throughout, though the mother-daughter pairing of Manley and Katie West (Ashe) is particularly effective, as is the sparky interplay between new lovers Jess (Witney White) and Michael (Tachia Newall). Mercedes Assad makes an impressive professional debut as mouthy and blunt Emma, who has been invited to join Michaela (Carla Henry) and Bernard (Lloyd Hutchinson) for a night of passion in a four-poster bed at the Mercure Doncaster.
As action flits from scene to scene, Stephens drip-feeds clues about the family dynamics, and we learn more about Christine. If it’s true that you can only be as happy as your unhappiest child, then Christine is not sad because she is lonely, but because of a surfeit of love that’s more difficult to channel once your children have grown-up.
It’s fitting when the cast join in harmony to sing Jarvis Cocker’s Hymn to the North with its enduring message: “Please stay in touch with me, In this contactless society.” A play ostensibly about estrangement and loneliness becomes about the imperceptible bonds that keep families together: the shared knowledge of imperfections, the mutual experiences and the many memories doused in northern drizzle.
Light Falls is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until Saturday 16 November. For more information and to book tickets, click HERE
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan