There are few environments more inhospitable to human personality than the interior of a Boeing 747. ‘Ah, 23B! Home sweet home’: the words of a madman. A friend of mine has decorated their room in Oxford with some posters of Hokusai’s The Great Wave, Van Gogh’s Starry Night and The Godfather; on an EasyJet flight from Heathrow to Barcelona, the closest equivalent to such bold self-representation is removing your shoes or letting your seat back, only to discover with horror that this brings you several inches closer to the toddler who’s going to give you tinnitus for the next two hours.
Cleopatra Coleman’s decision to set her new play, Window Seat, in an aeroplane, thus comes as something of a surprise. From the characters in a drama we hope for something distinct and individual, but on most flights I have found myself too enraptured by ‘tantrum in G Minor’ to give the idiosyncrasies of my personality, let alone anyone else’s, much thought. Yet in Coleman’s case this choice of setting is a stroke of genius, because it is precisely the conflict between character and convention (person and passenger) with which Window Seat deals.
The plot is structured around a conversation between middle-aged mother Trix (Marianne Nossair) and her adolescent daughter Lois (Avanthika Balaji), recently returned from her second term at university. These two, at first glance, couldn’t look more different. For Trix, think Dolores Umbridge’s philosophy applied to Kate Bush’s wardrobe: florid and quirky, but governed by an urbanity that always keeps the handbag tucked neatly under the seat. Lois’ altogether more androgynous appearance, her boyish clothes and short hair—a detail her mother fussily laments—contrasts starkly with this. Even the characters’ movements, directed by Lydia Free, point to the subtle differences between them: whilst mother applies hand lotion with fastidious elegance, daughter carelessly kicks her trainers off and rests her feet on the seat.
What generates the drama in Window Seat is the collision between this apparent difference and an underlying similarity between the two characters. Lois and her mother’s various discussions repeatedly lead back to the question of whether Trix’s behaviour towards her daughter is motivated by nostalgia for a life she herself could have had, but did not live. ‘An interior designer and an artist could not be more different’, Trix assures us, but as the play progresses it becomes increasingly evident that she is living certain aspects of her life vicariously through her daughter. Trix admits how ‘Freudian’ it is that she named her daughter after an old unrequited lover, and this makes it only natural to wonder whether Lois is just a symptom of her mother’s unfulfillment. Trix wants to be a passenger in her daughter’s future, but only if that future is a passenger in Trix’s own fantasy of the life she never led.. And the audience is a kind of passenger too, patiently attending to action they are not part of.
Passengers, moreover, are passive. I’ve always liked to think that the louder the toddlers cry, the faster the plane goes, but alas, we don’t live in Monsters Inc. Trix is waiting for her daughter to do what she always wished she had; Lois is waiting for her mother to give her permission to do those things; the audience is waiting for the stalemate to be broken; and everyone is waiting for the plane to take off. This aesthetic of delay does draw the audience into greater sympathy with the characters, but it also risks reducing the play to a series of swings between action and reaction. Trix can only show her concern for her daughter’s wellbeing when Lois brings up the topic of music festivals; Lois can only criticise her mother’s obstinacy when Trix expresses her disapproval for her son’s partner. Dialogue is necessarily reactive to some degree, and in fact Lois’ horrified responses to her mother’s outrageous comments produce some of the funniest moments in Window Seat (which is, I should stress, hilarious). ‘I became the Jeremy Clarkson of tits’, is brilliant enough on its own, but Nossair’s unapologetically nonchalant delivery, not uncoloured by a hint of mischief and followed by the helpless squirming of Balaji, makes it practically unforgettable. However, it does occasionally feel that the characters are merely waiting for their cues from one another rather than engaging in a natural conversation.
Nonetheless, the play is a joy to watch. Coleman always provides just enough detail in the dialogue to allow the audience to follow what is happening without making the relationship between the two characters seem overlaboured or mechanistic. Tilly Dyson’s sound design interjects the performance with announcements that provide comic relief—geese sunbathing on the runway—whilst also providing an element of direction that gently draws the play towards its conclusion. Gently, because we are not to expect any sudden climaxes or dilemmas.
The structure of the dialogue is aggregative as well as reactive: more and more topics are slowly incorporated to flesh out the emotional history of mother and daughter without us really registering that this is happening. There are no passionate declarations of devotion nor violent outbursts of anger. The word ‘love’ is spoken only once, yet the familial love between Trix and Lois is not cast into doubt for even a moment. It emanates from the cheeky intimacy of the humour, the warmth of the reminiscences, the fervour with which Balaji raves about feminist literature and her radio show and the quiet tenderness with which Nossair encourages her.
Peter Kessler complains of Window Seat that ‘these characters’ vehicle just doesn’t quite take flight’, but I think that it is this which makes the play simmer so powerfully in its final third. This power is that of potential rather than attainment, like knowing the seatbelt sign will turn off but not knowing quite when. No, we never learn whether Lois goes to the festival, or if her brother becomes reintegrated in the family. But the energy the play generates towards its close is such that the audience is bestowed with the freedom to imagine all of these things, and that is no bad thing.