Ellie (Lindsey Cross) and Jack (Howard Horner) in River In The Sky Photo: Courtesy Turn Point Theatre
Venue: The Hope Theatre, Islington
Performance Date: 08 August 2019
Star Rating: ★★★
Grief is a very personal thing. Nobody can prepare for it or preempt how they will react in the face of a sudden and tragic bereavement. This is the challenge facing Ellie (Lindsey Cross) and Jack (Howard Horner) in Peter Taylor’s play River In The Sky. Having decided to start a family and after debating at length the number of children they should have, they fall pregnant. Sadly the couple is forced to face a parent’s worst nightmare when their son dies suddenly only a couple of days after his birth.
Written, produced and directed by Peter Taylor, River In The Sky is predominantly a story of grief book-ended by hope. The staging is incredibly simple and austere with the storytelling wholly reliant on Cross and Horner’s acting prowess which is second to none for the full 70 minutes. The clever lighting design compliments the light and shade of the piece and serves to beautifully amplify the storytelling that flows throughout the play.
With the loss so sudden the couple pull apart from each other with Ellie retreating to a dilapidated caravan on the coast where she lives on a diet of Earl Grey and biscuits. Jack tries to maintain normality and routine as he periodically visits Ellie to provide her with those chosen provisions. What ensues is a highly charged two-hander where the pair try to navigate life after death. Throughout the piece, the couple turn to storytelling which serves as a metaphor for their deep-seated pain. They act out elaborate stories of octopus-like sea monsters and beautiful winged creatures as they slip perilously close to complete detachment from reality as they desperately try to reconcile their loss.
Individually Cross and Horner are incredibly strong actors and both successfully channel the grief and anguish plaguing their characters, yet the chemistry between the two does feel jagged and disconnected at times. Additionally, the constant transition into the make-believe realm does slightly negatively affect the piece. At times it makes it difficult to connect with the couple’s heartache and anguish as the narrative drifts into the absurd. It would have been nice to see more scenes rooted in reality to connect with the characters on a more personal level; the balance of the piece certainly feels tipped towards their escapism rather than their reality. There is also a scene where Ellie ‘speaks’ to their dead son which doesn’t sit well, with Horner delivering the interaction, although the end of the scene does offer a glimmer of hope that the couple might just be OK.
That said, Cross and Horner manage the material with a huge amount of commitment, driving the narrative forward at a comfortable pace engaging with the audience at every turn. There are also surprising moments of light relief as the two bicker over the superiority of biscuits as Jack discovers eating a bourbon and custard cream at the same time is not for winners.
Rivers In The Sky is not an easy watch, but it does offer a raw and honest portrayal of the process of bereavement. For people who have suffered a sudden loss and the grief that comes with it, the piece will undoubtedly resonate. River In The Sky is another solid production for The Hope Theatre and outgoing Artistic Director Matthew Parker, who consistently champion compelling and gripping new writing.