This tale of friendship and terminal cancer is by turns schmaltzy and hard-hitting. Bryony Lavery’s play touches interestingly on faith, pain and assisted suicide, its four characters regularly addressing the audience, asking how we’d react to the suffering and slow death of someone close. It’s also a theatrical love-in, full of show-tunes, in-jokes and bad gags. The gushiness is often subverted in Tinuke Craig’s production – but, still, it’s pretty gushy.
Naana Agyei-Ampadu’s June is a lighting designer, coolly poised, intelligent – she does cryptic crosswords, she tells us – and an atheist. Her breast cancer has spread beyond her lymph nodes to her liver and the prognosis is bad. Gay, catholic cabaret artiste Gash (Peter Caulfield) and Jewish American propmaker Leah (Jodie Jacobs) rally round.
The idea of a French holiday morphs improbably into a surprise pilgrimage to Lourdes. Even more improbably, to defray the cost, they invite along self-obsessed, sort-of Buddhist actress Joy (Ellie Piercy), who annihilates herself with booze every night to cope with the suicide of her unfaithful boyfriend.
It’s not just June’s story then, but a study of the moral boundaries and emotional resilience of all four characters. The way they fit into pigeonholes of belief and sexuality feels forced, but they are, for the most part, well-drawn. Leah is a nice, earthy counterpoint to June’s dryness. Joy is a wonderfully monstrous study of vanity. Only Gash seems like too much of a stereotype, with his flouncy outfits, shrieks and frequent invocations of Judy Garland, though he’s played with gusto by Caulfield.
Lavery says in a programme note that the play was inspired by events in her life, and it also seems to be a vehicle for things of passing interest to her. The detour to “awful, awful” Lourdes actually feels like a blind alley from the main moral dilemma of helping someone to die. There’s a discourse by June on the use of light in Caravaggio’s painting The Taking of Christ that feels similarly random. I’m a devoted fan of dad jokes but Lavery overloads the play with them. Partly this is to balance out the seriousness: partly, I suspect, she loves them too much too. The discussion of whether you should suffocate someone with a bag for life is very funny, though.
Craig’s production is brisk and economical, and the interaction between the cast and the audience feels natural. “Sorry, it’s very undramatic,” mutters one character while June sleeps. Beneath the larky tone and digressions, there’s a serious and satisfying core to the play. The questions it asks have stayed with me.
Until Aug 7: orangetreetheatre.co.uk