Theatre in Wales

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Love and Care and a Whole Lot More

At Wales Millennium Centre

Wales Millennium Centre- Es and Flo , Kiln Theatre, Kilburn , June 22, 2023
At Wales Millennium Centre by Wales Millennium Centre- Es and Flo For the second time in 2023 a Cardiff producing venue lands in London.

London and Welsh theatre are not strangers. For years, on and off, Dirty Protest and Gabblebabble have been seen at the Soho Theatre, as was Francois Pandolfo again in April.

But “Romeo and Julie” and “Es and Flo” are of a different level, lengthier runs at league-one theatres. And not just landed but received with acclaim from all sides.

These plays are doing what the theatre of south Wales should be doing, stepping with brio across the Severn and making a mark.

The two plays have not only a syntactically similar title but have a remarkable, and unplanned, symmetry.

Gary Owen put on stage the dilemmas of first love. Jennifer Lunn's “Es and Flo” goes to the other end of the course of shared love.

Her opening scene has Liz's Crowther's Esme declaring a seventy-first birthday. The play digs deep into its terrain, the dilemmas for love in life's third chapter, buffeted by medical, familial, financial and legal shock. It is done with finesse but with a studied eye on the medium. “Es and Flo” is theatre that wants to be theatre.

Both dramatists have waited to see their plays finally enacted. The idea for a play about elder lesbians first came to Jennifer Lunn ten years back. A shortlisting for the Verity Bargate Award alerted Graeme Farrow of the Wales Millennium Centre.

“Es and Flo” won the Popcorn Writing Award in 2020 but failed to be premiered in the Traverse in the summer of pandemic. It went on to win 2022's Nancy Dean Lesbian Playwriting Award.

Jennifer Lunn's directing background is an advantage for a dramatist. As is now common the Kiln has no curtain. Libby Watson's design has much to say to its audience in its time before an actor has appeared.

Furniture and wall paper have been unchanged for decades. A Joan Armatrading album sets the vintage. The script soon makes plain that it has been a home for 37 years. The details are evident of travelling spirits: a Collins dictionary, a string of Lonely Planet guides that include Thailand. The set has a surprise to spring in its second act.

So too the space defines the form, long sequences of action played across the combined sitting room and kitchen area. An ending with a surprise is accomplished with barely a word spoken. A character enters and it is all in the prop that she carries. Playwright and director, Susie McKenna, are finely fused. The play even breaks with the trend for straight-through action; it breaks for an interval with a character at a point of dilemma. This is fine form.

As in “Romeo and Julie” five actors inhabit roles across three generations. The boldest step has been to include an eight-year-old, Kasia (Chioma Nduka, the role split with Renée Hart), mixed-race and herself concealed by mother Beate (Adrianna Pavlovska) from grandparents in rural Poland. It is a cleverly made web of emotions.

“Es and Flo” is a play of words on ebb and flow. Love can live for decades as long as normality presides. Pressure of age and illness can still be its crisis point and nemesis.

The impulse for the action is the arrival of care worker Beata. Responsibilities are blurred. The law can be crudely out-of-kilter when it brushes up against a reality of love that has gone for decades without public declaration. In a series of plays in the last year- five at least- about women who love women “Es and Flo” is the most explicit in its physicality, both in talk and in action.

Theatre's dramatisation of dementia has risen as deaths from other causes have declined. It leans towards depiction in linguistic terms. Jennifer Lunn by contrast shows it with a solo scene for Esme in her own kitchen. A task as straight-forward as making toast and jam becomes Sisyphean, the spatial and geographical certainties of the kitchen collapsing for the sufferer.

Jennifer Lunn nudges into territory not often seen. A wall displays a a poster of Jamaica. Flo (Doreene Blackstock) is long estranged from her family. She is, she says, to their eyes anathema unto the Lord. (The same plot element featured in Iman Qureshi's “Ministry of Lesbian Affairs”, a sell-out in 2022, in which the engineer Lori is not able to come out to her family that her apparent lodger Ana is her white, bisexual partner. The relationship fractures on this failure of candour.)

Michelle McTernan completes the web of complex connection. Her role is that of a daughter-in-law, a relationship that is always at a remove. The play's treatment of love's ambiguity circles around filial devotion. Son Peter, an absent figure from the stage, seems little deserving of love's total devotion. Playwright Jennifer Lunn is too subtle to let it be spelt out. The greater truth besides is that filial love is little shaken whatever the circumstances.

“Es and Flo” has much to impress and to move; its qualities have been shown in the reactions from both reviewers and audiences.

Wales Millennium Centre continues to reveal itself as a producing organisation that matters.

Other credits for “Es and Flo”:

Simisola Majekodunmi, Lighting Designer
Tic Ashfield, Sound Designer and Composer
Nadine Rennie, Casting Director
Alice Eklund, Associate Director
Dollie Henry MBE, Movement Director
Ingrid Mackinnon, Intimacy Coordinator
Phil Bearman, Projection Designer
Amy Barrett, Costume Supervisor
Pádraig Cusack, Executive Producer
Sarah Hemsley-Cole for SC Productions Ltd, Production Manager
Ed Wilson for Wales Millennium Centre, Production Manager
Nicki Brown for Kiln Theatre, Production Manager
Antonia Collins, Originating Company Stage Manager
EJ Saunders, Company Stage Manager
Amy Hales, Deputy Stage Manager
Zoe Wale, Assistant Stage Manager

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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