It is a shame that student journalism so consistently lavishes praise on mediocre productions. This tendency is understandable given that reviewers are more often than not writing about the work of friends and acquaintances. However, the unfortunate consequence of this is that every time a show genuinely worthy of acclaim appears on the Oxford stage, all the recommendations we can give appear tired and superficial. To say, for instance, that Lovesong looks set to be one of the best pieces of student theatre this year might seem hyperbolic, clichéd and disingenuous but I urge readers to believe me. Moreover I am sure that, if they are lucky enough to have tickets for this sold-out show, they will make the same judgement for themselves.
Before I go any further, it is important to acknowledge that previews can be deceptive. For example, the three scenes I was shown at New College over the weekend were all individually stunning but by no means does that rule out the chance that the rest of the show may be unvarnished or, indeed, boring. I would, albeit, remain happy to bet against these odds. When you observe such a finely sculpted dramatic collage, as I was given the chance to this weekend, it is hard to believe that its creators don’t know exactly what they’re doing. In fact, I am more than happy to start the applause so prematurely.
Written by Abi Morgan (the screenwriter behind The Iron Lady, Shame and Suffragette) Lovesong is a play partially inspired by T.S Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. The narrative explores the nature of love and desire and how both change over time: growing, receding, and changing shape. Its main action leaps to and fro between two versions of the central couple, Maggie and Billy. Past and present meld seamlessly together and we are invited to view the newly-wed pair side by side with their older, wearier, emotionally-bruised selves. Scenes blend, timelines intermingle, both young and aged exchange glances as they share in the blisses and agonies of love and co-dependence. The gulf that time creates between who we are and who we used to be is at once emphasized by the two representations of the couple and collapsed by having both pairs occupy the same space. It is a serious rendering of human connection and human decay, possessing both imagination and poignancy.
Just as the story moves between the two different stages of Billy and Maggie’s relationship, the piece takes an equally mutable form, shifting from high naturalism to monologue and finally to physical theatre. Sound-tracked by an astonishing score composed in its entirety by Sarah Spencer, action feels perpetually on the edge of breakdown. Much is left unsaid between the couples and, increasingly as the play progresses, these silences break through in breath-taking movement sequences. Words give way to embraces, lifts and caresses and the fluidity with which these transformations happen is a testament to the strength of the play’s choreography and the actors’ dedication.
The moments of naturalism within the play warrant equal praise. All four actors present emotionally detailed characters, rich with complexity. One concern about the show might come from the thought of 20-year-olds playing the very elderly Maggie and Billy but Adam Goodbody and Miranda Collins seem more than up to the task, transforming vocally and physically before my eyes. Collins’s performance is particularly good. Her work is so understated and so nuanced, it could almost be for film. It feels utterly believable. Chloe Delanney also deserves a mention for her energetic, charismatic, heart-warming portrayal of young Maggie. In the scenes I saw, young-love seemed to positively light up her face and the whole of the stage.
The effect is most striking when abstract and realistic play out simultaneously. In one scene I was shown the older Maggie sets to making breakfast, moving with a rickety gait about the kitchen table, making coffee and opening a newspaper whilst her younger equivalent is being swept onto the same piece of furniture, erotically entangled in her young lovers arms. The contrast between the two scenes would almost be comic did it not feel so sad and truthful.
Returning to the statement I started this article with, I worry that I have become guilty of my own accusations. From what I have seen of this play, there is little I can think of that could be fairly criticized and impressive marketing tells me that Baz Luhrmann is of the same persuasion. However, there is also the possibility that this review is once more placing the vanilla on an unearned pedestal. I guess it is up to those lucky-few ticket holders to cast the deciding vote. And if anyone wants to sell me their seat, I’d be thrilled!