Simon Ward reviews IKARIA at the Old Red Lion Theatre
This is a compelling, if harrowing, portrait of a young man in torment. But he has become an expert in hiding his torment from everyone around him, refusing the help he is offered and pushing away his one chance of happiness. It is a devastating journey from the hopeful beginnings of a new relationship to an inevitable and tragic ending.
The play starts in a perfectly rendered room in a student hall of residence. This belongs to Simon (James Wilbraham), who is redoing his third year, after dropping out the year before. And this is the room into which he brings Mia (Amaia Naima Aguinaga), a first-year student whom he’s just met. Their awkward chat over a shared can of warm lager drew a shiver of embarrassed recognition from the audience – it is touching, at times completely hilarious and utterly heart-warming as they navigate the waters of attraction and shyness. And we cheer for them when they do get together.
But all too soon tensions arise as their different attitudes to the opportunities of student life become increasingly apparent. Mia is ambitious and determined to do well in order to succeed in life and escape from the challenges and restrictions of her upbringing. Simon, on the other hand, is from a more comfortable background, and takes a more world-weary view of things. He also becomes increasingly jealous of the time Mia devotes to her studies and her extra-curricular work on the student newspaper, The Eagle. For her part, Mia understands that the world of the university is limited but she is nevertheless determined to use it as a springboard into the rest of her life.
Simon’s apparently comfortable upbringing hides a secret – he feels lost and unloved, especially by a father whom he seldom sees or even talks to. We see his struggle to reconcile his obvious love for the classics he is studying with the constraints of actually writing an essay to be judged and marked. And his carelessness over his surroundings and personal hygiene are all too common signs of a life being overtaken by depression. In one heart breaking scene, Mia sets up an idyllic picnic in his room, in an attempt to rekindle the joy of their early days. But Simon is unable to accept or engage – it is already too late. And although, chillingly, he is able to phone his mother and brightly discuss his imminent return home, we also realise that it is too late for him to be saved.
The performers are both outstanding, the writing utterly convincing and the production is beautifully directed to fit the space by the playwright herself, Philippa Lawford. Scene changes, which can often be clunky in such intimate productions, are handled immaculately, Changes of costume and entrances or exits are all economically deployed to convey time passing in a seamless fashion. Sound designer Laurie Blundell’s use of music is sparing but judicious – there is a particularly effective moment when we ‘get inside Simon’s head’ to hear the music in his earphones which then, of course stops as soon as he takes them out. Overall, this is a powerful, poignant and important piece of work, and deserves as wide an audience as possible.
IKARIA is playing at The Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ until 19th November.