“I looked into her big big eyes. And found one hundred moons in amongst the blue.”
Set over a hot summer’s day in Stoke Newington, Many Moons is Alice Birch’s debut play showing at the Theatre503 in Battersea. Following four people whose isolated metropolitan existences circle round each other, their stories threatening to collide in the scorching heat of a village fête in Abney Park with potentially devastating effects. Birch is a graduate of new writing schemes at both the National and the Royal Court and with her first full-length production marks herself out as a talent to watch with a highly witty yet poetic play of great maturity and dramatic intrigue.
Edward Franklin’s nervy, nerdy Ollie is a bundle of barely-socialised but still endearing energy as a young man trying to break free from a life of dull Oxford academia and dark matter to try and find something new in London. In the flat next door, Esther Smith’s effervescent Juniper is an irrepressible perma-smiling ball of positivity, newly moved down from the Midlands and unshakeably sure that love and life have great things in store for her. Jonathan Newth’s Robert is preoccupied with caring for his Parkinson’s-suffering wife but he still has deep desires of his own. And in a house across the road, Esther Hall’s heavily-pregnant and unhappily-married Meg is wrestling with her feelings of unfulfilment and channelling her time and energies into dealing with a world of suspicions.
Birch’s writing here is extraordinary in its ability to encapsulate the worlds of these four people, physically so close yet emotionally estranged, and her eye for the nuances, detailing and quirks of human behaviour, especially with the modern sensibilities here, results in some moments of comic genius. There is the funniest joke about toast I have ever heard and Smith’s daffy Juniper is full of sparklingly daft non-sequiturs but it all works because of the emotional honesty of her characters, acted excellently as they are without exception, so that we’re fully invested in them from the start. There’s a great sense of location that will please anyone familiar with Stokey but Birch also shows a great skill for the art of revelation and as the swelteringly hot day progresses, the mood is twisted just brilliantly – but to say more would ruin it for you!
Creative team paper/scissor/stone make an interesting use of the tiny Theatre503: James Perkins’ abstract design is intriguing and attractive enough to not need the barely-used video wall and Derek Bond’s direction keeps a subtle energy running through the non-representational playing space as we switch between characters and viewpoints, with Ellis James and Benson Taylor’s jagged spurts of music interspersing effectively too. All four actors are excellent but special mention has to go to Esther Hall whose deeply affecting performance is just sensational. If the Royal Court is fully booked then don’t worry, Many Moons is as excellent a piece of new writing as you will see this year.