As I walked into the Leicester Square Theatre to watch Stop Kiss, one thought (which can be a common one when a sofa governs the set in a fringe production) came to mind: am I going to be bombarded with long, political conversation, and a pretentious play dealing with social and dogmatic issues? The answer to my question came very early on in the production – no, this was not going to be the case, not at all.
Libertine Productions have brought Stop Kiss, a play written in the late 1990s, into the present day. Noah James (this being his directorial debut) made the right choice here. The play focuses on the bittersweet story of two friends who fall in love and how random hate crime shatters their lives after they share their first kiss in public. Diana Son's script is still very much relevant today: the modern setting is cosy and warm, the bulk of the action taking place in Callie's flat, but it darts from a detective office to the hospital.
We meet Callie (Olivia Hunter) and Sara (Rae Brogan), both living in New York City. Sara has moved from St Louis, escaping her stifling life and boyfriend to begin a new, life-affirming career as a teacher downtown. Callie has an active social life, a career as a traffic reporter and a close relationship to George, her on-off boyfriend. Each have their journey, their lives floating ambiguously along – that is, until they meet each other. The chronological order of the play is shaken up, each scene exposing snippets of time, travelling back and forth – the development of Sara and Callie's relationship to Callie and Sara's ex-boyfriend, Pete (Seb Blunt) coping with the horrific attack.
The dialogue hits you like a bullet – it's fast paced and very quick witted. We observe the relationship between the two develop, which is beautifully crafted and sympathetically performed. Olivia Hunter's portrayal of Callie is energetic, and the tenderness she expresses in Sara is heartfelt and genuine. When she tells Detective Cole (Georgia Buchanan) about the moment that Sara is beaten to a coma, we are drawn so intensely into the action by her passionate rendition that I felt pure relief at not being subjected to viewing such a crime. Jamael Westman plays a dominant George: his character is loveable and energetic. He portrays George with the playfulness and innocence you would expect from a testosterone-fuelled youth living aimlessly in this modern world. However, it was Rae Brogan as Sara who stole the show. She exuded a truthful nature, which became ever more endearing throughout the production. The confidence in her performance was worthy of my complete emotional investment – a truly touching experience.
There was scope for Stop Kiss to become a cliché. The play is fairly short, and there could have been obvious moments – moments that were stamped with over-exposed emotions and revelatory "I'm gay" outbursts – but there thankfully weren't. Stop Kiss is far from cliché. The gentleness of this love story was magical, and the real strength in this play is the way it depicts the pinnacle moments that each of us can relate to when we begin a new relationship. We see their first dinner together, their first awkward moment together, and we even see the moments when they both feel empowered by the other's presence. Yes, this may be a love story between two women, but Stop Kiss is not a stereotypical gay drama – it's a tale of how two people discover that each have fallen in love. Along with a stellar cast and astute directing from Noah, Stop Kiss is a refreshing love story which pulls on every heartstring you own.