mon 26/10/2020

Sunnymead Court, Tristan Bates Theatre review - a lovely lockdown romance | reviews, news & interviews

Sunnymead Court, Tristan Bates Theatre review - a lovely lockdown romance

Sunnymead Court, Tristan Bates Theatre review - a lovely lockdown romance

Socially distanced dramedy is short and sweet, with a knockout performance from Remmie Milner

Burst of light: Gemma Lawrence and Remmie Milner in 'Sunnymead Court' Lidia Crisafulli

The first words of Sunnymead Court, a new play at the Tristan Bates Theatre, are ominous. “We are transitioning from human experiences to digital experiences.” Oof. Thankfully, this isn’t another gloomy lockdown drama about the evils of Zoom quizzes – it’s the story of an unlikely romance between two women who live metres from each other, but have never spoken. 

The first words of Sunnymead Court, a new play at the Tristan Bates Theatre, are ominous. “We are transitioning from human experiences to digital experiences.” Oof. Thankfully, this isn’t another gloomy lockdown drama about the evils of Zoom quizzes – it’s the story of an unlikely romance between two women who live metres from each other, but have never spoken. 

We meet Marie (Gemma Lawrence, who also wrote the piece) first – a socially-anxious copywriter with a strict routine, which includes blasting William Onyeabor’s "Fantastic Man" at 11am every day. Stella (Remmie Milner, pictured below), “back in the closet” in lockdown with her conservative mum, lives just across the way, but exists in a totally different world. She buys vodka and cigarettes for the local teenagers and pines for pounding club music and sweaty crowds. One day, she starts dancing to Marie’s music – in the middle of a hailstorm. How’s a girl meant not to fall in love? 

Remmie Milner in 'Sunnymead Court' at the Tristan Bates TheatreThe play starts off as two monologues that gradually intertwine. Director James Hillier has Lawrence speaking to a live camera feed projected behind her while Milner plays it straight (if you’ll pardon the pun). The live feed doesn’t really seem necessary, and it’s part of the reason Milner clicks much more quickly with the audience – although Marie is the awkward one, hiding from the world behind her computer screen, so that may be the point. Regardless, Milner is witty and warm from the off, the words coming alive in her mouth. Like all great actors, she makes her co-star better: as they merge into dialogue, Lawrence becomes sparkier, more assured of her own writing. “Her awkwardness is catching,” Stella says of Marie, but Milner’s confidence seems the more contagious of the two to me. The seats are socially-distanced, the set bare-bones: a few plastic chairs, a camera, and a huge sample pad, which the actors press to cue their own lights and sound (design by Will Monks and Max Pappenheim respectively). How they remember what every little coloured square does, I’ve no idea, but everything works perfectly, even the haze machine that simulates the hailstorm. At 45 minutes, the runtime is eminently mask-friendly, though I’d happily watch Lawrence and Milner flirt for hours. 

Lawrence deals lightly and well with the alienating aspect of lockdown, which is particularly intense for women. Marie thinks her ideal life would be as a brain floating in a vat of green goo; Stella shows her that having a body isn’t all bad. Sure, it’s a little clichéd, but lesbian meet-cutes get a free pass. There haven’t been nearly enough sweet stories of women falling in love in ordinary circumstances. Sunnymead Court dances neatly past the "useless lesbian" trope – Lawrence pokes gentle fun at Stella and Marie’s inability to communicate normally with each other, but it always feels like we’re on their side, through the misunderstandings and dead geraniums and shared Soleros. Another glimmer of light in this godawful year. 

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