"When you're at uni, you think the salad in your kebab is your five-a-day and Marlboro Lights are a food group"
I do try and attend new writing nights here and there and I often ponder what, if anything, happens to the many works in progress that feature in their programmes. And in the case of Life Sentence by Siân Rowland, a short but powerful monologue I saw as part of this night at the Southwark Playhouse, I'm getting to see that development first-hand. Expanding on the larger theme of people going missing (this production supports the charity Missing People), Rowland has introduced two more monologues and intertwined the three together to create Gazing At A Distant Star.
Call centre worker Arun is grinding through shift after shift to save for university, the only chink of light coming with his friendship with colleague Glen, but he's not been seen for a week. Anna is training for a 5k run when a chance encounter brings memories of her long-disappeared sister come flooding back. And Karen's wait for a postcard from her son, who is off on a lads holiday, is interrupted by a knock on the door from the police. As they each deal with the pieces of their shattered lives, so too are their stories fragmented as the narrative continually shifts between all three.
As bleak as it may sound, Rowland's focus on those who must continue after loved ones go missing means that she is able to explore a real gift for observational comedy as each of her trio build up a picture of the lives that were, as well as breaking our hearts with the realities that now are. Harpal Hayer's Arun is a particular delight as he cycles through every possible method of alleviating the dullness of office life, and Serin Ibrahim proves a highly charismatic performer as the dryly witty Anna who can't quite believe she's coming to enjoy exercise.
But the laughs are always bittersweet, as they're undercut by recriminations and regrets, made all the more pointed through hindsight. Why did we wait so long to do something? Why didn't we do something sooner? Why didn't we notice something was wrong? Each strand explores loss from a different angle, and Victoria Porter's single mother Karen - whose story formed Life Sentence - undoubtedly carries the weightiest dramatic heft as the truth about her son comes to light leaving her to face its traumatic repercussions alone.
Porter delivers an exquisitely poignant turn, one which was heightened by my knowledge of what was to come, but it was interesting to consider the balance between the three stories (two thirds tragicomedy, one third tragedy). Karen's son never quite sparks into life in the same way as Glen's mate or Anna's sister, her recollections are considerably more grief-stricken which whilst affecting, leave little room for Rowland to sketch the colour and character that is clearly her strength and thus impose a tad more tonal consistency.
But James Haddrell's simply but powerfully executed direction, which inaugurates the Spring season in the studio space at his Greenwich Theatre, makes for a compelling evening of drama. And it is one that resonates, as the real-life experiences that Missing People deal with demonstrate, including the scarcely credible statistic that an estimated 250,000 people go missing in the UK every year.
Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 29th January