Last Updated on August 9, 2021
A delightful escape into the small, birdwatching town of Kilnsea and a sensitive look at the relationships of its inhabitants.
Big Big Sky, a new play by Tom Wells premiering at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, is an intimate study of relationships and small-town life. Set in a café in the Yorkshire hamlet of Kilnsea where Wells worked as a young man, the cosy venue is an appropriate space for this contained drama. The audience, only 30 in number with social distancing, sit metres away from five small tables and a counter (designed by Bob Bailey). The play is equally understated – Tom Wells admits in the programme that “the stories I like to tell are just very ordinary”. Wells succeeds in creating a sensitive and humorous presentation of the hardship and beauty of ordinary life, explored through the relationships between his four characters.
Lauren (Jessica Jolleys) is a young woman working in Angie’s (Jennifer Daley) café. Her dad, Dennis (Matt Sutton), has become self-centred and emotionally distant since his wife (Lauren’s mum and Angie’s best friend) has died. He has also recently taken up birdwatching, although he remains isolated from the vibrant birdwatching community in Kilnsea. We keep track of time by following the countdown to the closing of the three-season long, hotly contested bird photography competition.
Lauren’s relationship with Dennis takes a few scenes to sound natural and unrehearsed. At multiple moments in the play, I found myself wishing for a bit more time to be convinced by the relationships, to consider their subtlety, and to process the unfolding events. It is not a complex plot, yet the gentle peaks and troughs of the storyline sometimes felt rushed. After Dennis’ exit following an argument with Lauren – the last straw in an already fragile relationship – Lauren immediately picks up her guitar and starts belting out a song. Although her voice is impressive, I felt that here, as in a few other moments, the direction, and perhaps also the writing, required a little more composure.
But these are minor faults in a delightful play. Ed (Sam Newton), Lauren’s awkward love interest, provides comic relief and an infectious passion for birds that creates an eccentric and educational backdrop. The four cast members display chemistry and comic timing that makes them a lovable group. In one scene, as they laugh and dance to Jessica Jolley’s guitar and singing, they genuinely seem to be having a fun time. This, thanks to Tessa Walker’s direction, was one of the most effective scenes in building belief in the closeness of the characters. Although cliché, it is true that when the actors are enjoying themselves, so is the audience.
Big Big Sky runs at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs until 11th September.
Big Big Sky
London, NW3 3EU
Box Office: 020 7722 9301 (staffed Mon – Fri 10.30am-4.30pm) | hampsteadtheatre.com
For more about what’s on this season at the Hampstead Theatre, check our preview