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Sparks review at the Old Red Lion Theatre, London – ‘funny, dreamlike and achingly sad’

Sophie Steer and Sally Hodgkiss in Sparks at the Old Red Lion Theatre. Photo: JFK Man Sophie Steer and Sally Hodgkiss in Sparks at the Old Red Lion Theatre. Photo: JFK Man
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Like the endless rain outside the onstage window, words pour out in a torrent in this new play by former Royal Court Young Writer Simon Longman.

When – after disappearing 12 years ago – Jess (Sophie Steer) appears on her sister Sarah’s (Sally Hodgkiss) doorstep, goldfish in tow and spilling stories, it turns Sarah’s world upside down.

The Midlands is both the setting for the play and where Longman and director Clive Judd come from. The place is caught, in Jess’s compulsive ramblings, as a place for drifters – too small to escape, but too easy to lose yourself in. It’s fertile territory for Longman’s brilliantly freewheeling (and often hilarious) script.

The sisters’ relationship thaws through words – and when a pop-up ‘pub’ out of Jess’s rucksack. Reunited with designer Jemima Robinson and sound designer Giles Thomas, the creative team from his production of Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, Judd lifts the play by creating an increasingly dreamlike stillness out of their encounter.

Steer and Hodgkiss (equally good) swap roles for different performances, which makes sense – like the room’s peeling childhood wallpaper, both Jess and Sarah have frozen in time since their separation. And when the play really hits its stride in a beautifully unpredictable Act II, their pain is bruising and achingly sad.

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A funny, dreamlike, but also achingly sad, new play about loss, hurt and the ties that bind us