Stephanie Greenwood writes and performs this single hander at London’s Tristan Bates Theatre in which she recounts stories of death. That sounds morbid, even grim. But this play is neither. It’s a highly personal piece in which Greenwood has set out to tell us about the life and death by suicide of her dear friend Lindsay. The story is given dramatic energy by her unwillingness to confront this particular death which, despite not being of a relative, is much closer to her than any other. At every point when Lindsay’s story is looming in her rear view mirror, ready to overtake her, Greenwood is diverted off the road and backs up into her own past and sometimes that of her ancestors.
There is an extraordinary tale of her great great grandmother hosting magnificent and opulent balls. In another someone else seems to have been shot in Europe during the war for plotting to sabotage German trains. The first of the play’s stories concerns Greenwood confessing to the conflict she felt as a child when speaking at her grandparents’ funerals. How much was she speaking for them and how much was she doing it because she enjoyed the opportunity to perform?
This conflict does create a problem for the play. We know from the blurb it’s a true story, so Greenwood is genuinely baring her soul to us. At the same time we know it’s also a performance, the spontaneity is rehearsed. She’s a professional performer. How do we know what’s true and what’s just a performance?
Fortunately, though, Greenwood is a compelling stage presence and her nuanced performance is captivating. Hands are carefully placed, a tilt of the hip and she’s instantly a surly thirteen year old. This detail is telling and it shows the insight Greenwood brings to the play as, being the sole performer, she is obviously acutely aware of the scrutiny every part of her will be under. All this is given added impact by thoughtfully effective lighting and sound design which neatly and economically signal where we are in Steph’s life.
Gradually the flashbacks take her to more recent times and then we find out we’re all guests at a party to celebrate Lindsay. We’re all invited to don party hats and enjoy mini muffins and champagne. But this is all too much for our host. She’s not ready to pretend that we can all carry on as normal and breaks down. We are left feeling awkward wearing our silly hats and holding a plastic champagne glasses.
Ultimately it’s Steph and ourselves we learn about from this piece. The person we learn least about is Lindsay, whose suicide is the catalyst for the play. But what we do learn is that there is something different about the impact of her death compared with others in Steph’s life. The subjects of her other stories are in some way heroic but remote. Lindsay, though, is more real, more current but at the same time more unknown to us.