In a post #MeToo era, Nightjar Theatre’s Your Little Play could not be more relevant. An exploration of sexual harassment and the abuse of power, the play presents a tragic storyline which by now seems all too familiar. The plot centres around the experience of aspiring playwright and director Laura (Isabella Gilpin), a participant in an access scheme which has offered her the opportunity to direct the play of her idol, successful playwright Louis Sherman (Alexander Marks). It seems, however, that in Laura’s case the old adage about never trying to meet your heroes, because they’re sure to disappoint you, is unfortunately true: arrogant, controlling and – as we quickly find out – a sexual predator, the idolised Louis cuts an ugly Harvey Weinstein-esque figure.
For me, the greatest achievement of Your Little Play was the outstanding quality of the acting. Marks’ performance was nothing short of arresting. In every scene he was in he commanded the stage, fully and convincingly adopting the persona of a coercive manipulator. His effortless switching between Louis’ arrogant (albeit at times rather charming and funny) outward demeanour and the darker, menacing side of his character was impressive, and superbly realised in a party scene. Seeking out Laura, who is visibly out of place, Louis reassures her that all present are “pricks” and proceeds to joke around. In the same scene we witness Louis ignore several persistent phone calls; when he finally picks up, walking off to the side, his tone is suddenly threatening. “I told you to stop calling me,” he hisses into the phone, presumably to his loving fiancée Anna (Harrison Gale), “can’t you take the hint?”
Gilpin’s performance exhibited a similar effortlessness. Her well-timed deadpan humour and bemused reactions, especially around Maya’s boyfriend Tom (whose presence she seemed to find endlessly irritating), punctuated the play with some much-needed comic relief, eliciting many laughs from the audience. Where I think she shone the most, however, was in her interactions with her best friend and housemate Maya. Their conversations were natural and unforced, ranging from vapid to more serious topics – I really felt as if I was eavesdropping on a real conversation between best friends.
The more technical side to the production must not go unacknowledged. The division of the narrative into short scenes gave the performance a definite rapidity, the play hurtling towards its conclusion. Music was employed effectively in these transitions: at the start of the play, soft jazz music was played during the scene changes, but as the play progressed, the music became darker and more urgent – a reflection of Laura’s predicament. On the subject of Laura’s predicament, Writer/Director Anna Myrmus should be commended for confronting some heavy themes, many of which are particularly pertinent to our time and, indeed, Oxford University. In addition to running theme of sexual misconduct, Your Little Play explores access – specifically, how its importance is often dismissed by those who have the greatest power to implement it (‘What kind of a man would I be if I let you pay on access scheme?’ Louis scoffs during his lunch meeting with Laura.) Themes of class divisions and wealth are also probed (Laura asking if she can take a picture of Louis’ beautiful office was a particularly nice touch) as well as adulthood and dependency.
I am still in two minds about the ending, mainly because the naïve, easily led Laura we see at the beginning of the play is still there at the end. Just as she was groomed over the course of the play by Louis, she continues to be coerced by both Anna and the producer Mark (Jake Rich) to keep silent and to accept the compromise at the end. I think an opportunity to offer a somewhat empowering ending was missed, and this would have been refreshing in today’s climate. That is not to say I think the ending should have been a happy one: I did not expect Laura to report Louis’ attempted rape, nor Louis to be punished – an unfortunate reality for many victims of sexual assault. However, I think if she rejected Louis’ offer to produce her play, I would have left the theatre feeling like she was the victor in her story, not Louis.
It is only the ending of the play which has prevented me from awarding this production five stars. After the horrifying climax of Louis’ attempted rape of Laura, we see a compromise reached: if Louis produces Laura’s own “little play”, she will keep quiet about his attack, nor will she corroborate the rape allegations of a young actress (Emma, played by Lorelei Piper) against Louis. This unsettling conclusion is then epitomised in the final scene, where we see Laura settled down on the sofa watching TV in her living room, and Louis, illuminated by a spotlight, appearing behind, with her unaware.