Ella Hickson’s second play Precious Little Talent comes with something of a millstone of huge critical expectation as she has already been lauded one of the major new writing talents in this country, a shorter version of this play being a big success in Edinburgh two years ago. It has been expanded from 50 minutes to just under 90 and is receiving a London showing at the tiny Trafalgar Studios 2 with a cast of three, including the marvellous Ian Gelder who was the main reason I booked to see the show.
The story revolves around George (Gelder), an English academic in his early 60s living in New York and suffering from early onset dementia. His estranged 23 year old daughter Joey comes to visit unexpectedly, unable to get work in England and espying perceived opportunities in Obama’s ‘new’ USA, but with the help of his carer, 19 year old American Sam, he tries to hide the truth of his deterioration from her. But hiding his symptoms is easier said than done and when Sam falls head over heels for Joey though she does not know his real relationship to her father, the truth about the connections between these people and how far apart they really are comes to light.
And as with so many shows that come loaded with expectation, I have to say I was a little disappointed. Hickson has an engaging way with words, there is no doubting that, and some of her speeches especially those delivered by Gelder about the loss of language for someone who holds it so dear are just beautiful. But her canvas for the other characters, in particular Joey, is simply too vast for it to be truly effective. She hits on mixed-race marriages, the UK economy, graduate career prospects, American patriotism, yet doesn’t really delve into and explore them properly: the hints of interest abandoned as half-formed thoughts and the easy humour of culture-clash repeated just a little too often.
Part of this lay in Olivia Hallinan’s performance as Joey: I was never quite convinced by her uneasy mix of assertiveness and vulnerability, a woman on the cusp of adulthood perhaps but Hallinan doesn’t quite nail the emotional dexterity and resultantly a little too brattishly one-note. Anthony Walsh was strong though as the enthusiastic Sam, excited by the new world of potential at his feet and Ian Gelder was thankfully excellent as the man all too cruelly aware of what he is losing. The production seemed to work against Hickson’s writing though with director James Dacre going for a choppy episodic style, with punchy musical interludes which admittedly did give a nice metropolitan atmosphere but ultimately left me feeling that Hickson’s writing could have been better served elsewhere in order to see whether it really does deserve the plaudits.