Sheer Drop bring two new plays by young, exciting writers to the Tristan Bates Theatre, and they are both hugely impressive: A Lady of Substance, by Jon Cooper, presents a believably natural relationship between two women with subtle intricacy, showing two very different paths for handling bereavement and the passions of an artist.
Jasmin, a runaway, has broken into Cassandra's semi-abandoned flat, and from this unlikely beginning a strong bond of friendship is formed between the two women. However, both are hiding deep sadness: Jasmin has lost her mother, and Cassandra her girlfriend. Both are self-medicating with various drugs and alcohol, and also share a passion for the spoken word: Cassandra is a poet and Jasmin raps. But they are hiding more than it seems at first, and it seems that they both need each other's help.
Tragedy, then - with a capital "T". It's a pretty depressing set-up, both on stage (a collection of half-packed boxes and empty bottles of alcohol) and from both characters, but there's still a pleasing warmth to the relationship between the women - Jasmin's youthful energy clearly invigorates the taciturn Cassandra, while Jasmin craves the adult attention and respect that Cassandra can provide. It's not exactly novel, but Jon Cooper has done a remarkable job in making the voices and situations so truthful - an impressive achievement from a male writer - and the tone skips delicately between light and airy, and deeply sad. It's a very accomplished piece of writing.
It's also very strong work from both performers - Tia Bannon's Jasmin is wonderfully playful, leaping all over the furniture in her exuberance, while Joyce Greenway's Cassandra hides behind a wittily cynical shell before giving herself a chance to let loose. Their interactions have the easy simplicity of true friendship, just as their solo moments reek of the quiet sadness that pervades the piece; it's all very well balanced, and Samantha German has directed this with enviable subtlety - in less confident hands, this could easily have spiralled out of control.
The only thing I can criticise here is the relentlessness - it is just a very sad play. Both characters have been through some really quite depressing scenarios, and while it's lovely to see them buoy each other's spirits, it's not got many peaks to gloss us over the deep lows. There is a notable moment when Jasmin goads Cassandra into trying to rap, which lightens the mood considerably, but that's it. And there's the ubiquitous "drugs and alcohol" moments - learning to snort cocaine together, talking about Jasmin being too young, etc. These are all important for plot purposes, but the cliché does ring a little heavily.
There's also a distinct lack of outsiders - for an hour and a quarter, we're only privy to these two characters and their issues. Various other characters are mentioned but not seen, and it might be nice to see how others fail to help, thus drawing these characters closer together. However, the intimacy and closeness derived from the single set and just having these two characters to focus on does intensify the experience - the relentlessness might just be a bit much for me!
It is an intricate and very well observed piece of writing, which is commendable, and it's a very watchable show - both actors perform their hearts out, and the result is engaging and enjoyable. It's just all so very sad - and since these characters are so well drawn, I really wished them a little more chance to be happy!