Simon Ward reviews No Place Like Hope at The Old Red Lion, Islington
Even by the standards of theatre-rooms-above-pubs, the Old Red Lion is a particularly intimate space. If you sit at the front you are almost part of the scenery, or intruding on someone’s privacy. Especially so here, where we are sitting in a room with a hospital bed and a couple of bookcases. The confined space also makes it all the more challenging to carry off 90 minutes of naturalistic acting. It is a tribute to all the actors, but especially Holly Donovan as Becca and Clare Corbett as Anna, that we really believe in their predicament.
So the scene is set in the room where Anna has chosen to spend the end of her life – she is dying of cancer.
The play begins when Becca turns up to begin her two-week ‘community punishment order’ by helping out at the hospice. Anna, too, has only got a couple of weeks. In that short space of time the two forge a bond, partly out of mutual antipathy towards care assistant-cum nurse jailer Bri (Max Calandrew).
Anna’s relationship with Bri is ambivalent – she needs his help, but is angry that she does. And she resents his attempts to enforce rules about drinking and smoking, when she is, after all, dying anyway. Becca offers a lifeline of illicit cigarettes, gin and laughter.
The two make an unlikely pairing. Becca is a teenager with an encyclopaedic collection of movie references; Anna is older, a reader of poetry who hasn’t seen Goodfellas. But Becca provides something that Anna needs.
Anna is facing death more or less alone – prickly and confrontational, she talks about the suffocating kindness of others and so she has come to the hospice to get away, to escape from people. In the end, however, she realises that she needs someone simply to hold her hand as life ebbs away. Thrown together by circumstance, Becca finds meaning in helping Anna and Anna finally gets the human comfort she needs from this virtual stranger.
Performed in association with the charity Victoria’s Promise, whose aim is to provide help for young women with cancer, this is obviously a piece that the cast and production team are passionate about. In particular, Holly Donovan’s evident emotional engagement was notably moving. While the play may not break any new ground, it is a well-worked and thought-provoking examination of a difficult theme.
Runs at The Old Red Lion Theatre, Islington until 25th November, Tuesday-Saturday 7.30pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday 3pm