“I don’t know where you came from or who you belong to, but I do know that no-one wants to claim you, no-one wants you to belong to them”
‘As above, so below’ so the saying goes, but in this case the opposite is true as the Royal Court upstairs follows the Hampstead Theatre downstairs in putting on a play which deals with the death of a young British soldier and its impact on the family left behind. But where Nick Payne’s Lay Down Your Cross focused on the parent-child dynamic, Hayley Squires’ Vera Vera Vera looks at how contemporaries are affected – the siblings and cousins left to mourn their loved ones and reassess their own lives in the light of tragedy. This play continues the Young Writers Festival which started with Goodbye to all That and as she originally trained as an actor, this is Squires’ first full-length play.
She moves forward and back between two scenarios in present-day Kent: a pair of schoolkids make tentative steps to progressing their friendship into something more and three months later, a brother and sister prepare for the funeral of their younger brother, killed in combat in Afghanistan. Tom Piper’s design utilises the same central structure from Goodbye to all That which he also did, but this time around the edges are covered in grass and the Kentish countryside is suggested on the walls. Jo McInnes’ direction also harks back to that first production in keeping the cast visible on the staging area even when not involved in the scenes, but pushes it a little further by having some spiky non-verbal interactions between them during the scene changes – a little thing but most effective.
And from her young cast, she teases some gorgeous performances. The relationship between the high-schoolers Charlie and Sammy is the stuff of teenage fantasy but delightful with it: Ted Riley’s swaggering Sammy a secret champion for the emotionally fragile Charlie, Abby Rakic-Platt in beautiful tenderly natural form, and there’s such a sweetness about this pairing that it is a joy to keep revisiting them. Squires captures perfectly the natural rhythm of friend-speak combined with a new awkwardness as the pair begin to cross the boundary that has marked their relationship thus far. Crucially, it is also extremely funny.
The older generation, who’ve long lost that innocence, are given particularly rancorous antagonistic voice in the tortured brother/sister relationship of Tommy McDonnell’s Danny and Danielle Flett’s Emily, utterly convincing that a lifetime of petty squabbling lies behind this particular falling out. They well epitomise directionless small-town young adulthood with its warped sense of priorities and a grim trail of sex, drugs and violence. But Squires introduces a fifth character too, Daniel Kendrick’s much more affable Lee, the dead man’s best friend who is now sleeping with his sister on the QT. And though Lee see himself as the peacemaker, we see how even his behaviour has sown the seeds for destruction just as much as the aggressive behaviour he is witnessing.
These sections don’t quite have the same level of impact, though still powerfully acted, as Emily is invested with just a little too much self-awareness to truly convince despite Flett’s best efforts. The portrayal of small-town apathy is well-judged but Squires needs to let it speak for itself rather than instead of pushing commentary into the mouths of her characters (though it is a problem that blights playwrights young and old so she’s in good company). For a short play, an hour straight through, Squires manages an extremely accomplished debut here: Vera Vera Vera is clear-sighted, punchy and perfectly formed and would be definitely worth a punt if it weren’t sold out.
On a side note, this was my first Royal Court ‘pay what you like’ performance and it was surprisingly and thankfully easy to pick up tickets, there was no queue when I rocked up at 10.30 (tickets go on sale from 10am from the box office only) and is to be recommended as a way to get into shows which often sell out before the run even opens. I do find it a little frustrating when a run like this only actually features one £10 Monday – one of the Royal Court’s better innovations – due to an unfortunate juxtaposition of bank holidays and a press night on a Monday, it’s not the first time this has happened and I just think it would be nice if at least one of them were replaced with, oh I don’t know, Tuesdays for a tenner.