Simon Ward reviews Breathless at the Soho Theatre
From the moment that Sophie (Madeleine MacMahon) bursts onto the stage accompanied by an exhalation of breath we are gripped. She is indeed breathless as she tells us her story, and she is rendered breathless and speechless more than once as the tale unfolds. MacMahon and director Stephanie Kempson have taken Laura Horton’s script and deliver a masterclass in playing to the whole room, and rise to the challenge of a large space for an intimate, one-woman show. A bare stage, save for a chair and two portable clothing racks laden with clear plastic clothing protectors provide all the backdrop we need. Sophie is in her late thirties and is back on the dating scene, only now she has finally allowed herself to admit that she actually ‘likes girls’. We witness the hilariously phlegmatic and ultimately supportive reactions of both her parents – brilliantly rendered by MacMahon, as are all the supporting characters – and settle in for an exploration of the challenges of coming out as gay later in life. Only to have our expectations completely upended. Because being gay is actually the easiest thing Sophie has to deal with – she meets Jo and their relationship is progressing well, but there is one stumbling block. Sophie will not, or cannot, invite Jo into her home. By the time of the sixth date this is too much for Jo – it’s too weird, and suggests that Sophie is hiding something – and she leaves.
So, what is Sophie hiding? She has always had a love of nice clothes but never any money to buy them. That was until she arrived in London and discovered sample sales. Something that was supposed to be hundreds of pounds marked down to thirty or forty – irresistible. And so she began to buy. And buy. But the odd thing is that she never tries anything on. Indeed lots of the things she buys are nowhere near her size. She is not really buying things to wear. She is buying for the thrill of the bargain, and the joy of owning beautiful, if impractical, things. In a sense they represent aspects of who she would like to be. And in the process her own personailty is squeezed away – left breathless, perhaps. She never quite feels that she fits in, never really knows what to wear, or dares to wear what she would like to.
Laura Horton’s text cleverly interweaves Sophie’s two relationships – with Jo and with clothes – into a compelling piece of theatre. And the final moments of the play where Sophie is forced to face up to the reality of the world she has created for herself packs a powerful emotional punch.
This is a funny, moving, charming story, brilliantly told from the perspective of someone who is too caught up to see herself as others see her. But we are on her side nonetheless and her journey from obsession to hopeful redemption is sensitively and thoughtfully handled. Madeline MacMahon is a delight throughout and truly makes this character her own.
Breathless runs at the Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1D 3NE until Saturday 18th February
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