It’s hard to imagine a static, single-act monologue being so gripping, but Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath is nothing short of a theatrical triumph. The classic ’50s housewife – loyal to her husband, caring mother and kitchen lover – Elizabeth Gray initially reveals herself to us by removing her shocked-headed head from out of her gas oven. The effect is instantly mesmerising, and rather than ruining it with continual rants about how imprisoned she feels, the play becomes an endless energetic see-saw, with scenes that involve a mock cookery TV show, conversations with her husband or games of hide-and-seek with her child (all the different characters voiced by Gray herself).
Nothing about the drama is complicated. Her husband has cheated on her, she has an insufferable child, and she is intent on committing suicide. However, we instantly feel pity for her position, caught up as she is in a relationship with a writer while she herself longs to have something she writes published. Her desire is so strong that it is almost more hurtful of the husband to suggest that she does not have the skill to write than to see him cavorting with another woman. We see this action take place in a recorded black and white film, its scenes projected onto the back wall of the stage. The silent footage, which Gray vocalises in some of the scenes, helps to keep the action varied, but all the play’s exuberance comes from Gray’s performance itself. Edward Anthony’s script effectively presses all the right satirical buttons (the recipes, including one for “an ungrateful, cheating husband”, recited in a mock ’50s fashion, are cleverly construed) but it is Gray’s delivery, ebbing from uncontrolled madness to touching serenity that works to move the audience. When we see her take the final steps to her end, reciting the recipe for “a perfect suicide”, there is almost a temptation to cry, simply because this one person has had to perform (literally) so much, so quickly, only to end up suffocating, with her head stuck inside the very source of her imprisonment as a means to escape. For something original and greatly affecting, make sure you go along to see this. There’s a reason why Gray received a Best Solo Artist Award this year at the Edinburgh Festival for her month-long run. Oxford is lucky to have her ready to perform it at least a few more times – you’ll leave feeling glad to have had an Elizabeth Gray.
Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath runs at 8:00pm (additional 2:00pm performance on Saturday 27th), Pilch Theatre on Jowlett Walk through Saturday 27th October.