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Wings review at Young Vic, London – ‘Juliet Stevenson takes to the air’

David Emmings and Juliet Stevenson in Wings at Young Vic, London. Photo: Johan Persson David Emmings and Juliet Stevenson in Wings at Young Vic, London. Photo: Johan Persson

In this revival of Arthur Kopit’s 1978 play, Juliet Stevenson plays Mrs Stilson, a woman unravelled by aphasia and untethered from her memories. A one-time wing-walker, now in her 70s, she has been un-tongued by a stroke and has lost her words.

To convey the disorientation and distress of her brain injury, director Natalie Abrahami – who previously buried Stevenson in shale in Beckett’s Happy Days – straps her into a harness and suspends her above the stage where she spends the majority of the production gliding or turning in circles.

For the first third of the play she babbles in Joycean streams. A moving platform on the floor means that even when her feet do touch the ground it continues to shift underneath her as synaptic strip lights flicker above her head.

Translucent hospital curtains become screens onto which images are projected: a series of melting Dali doors and alarming close ups of eyes with bloodshot sclera.

As Mrs Stilman convalesces and her words return to her, the scenes become more solid and less fragmented; we glimpse speech therapy sessions in which gentle therapist Lorna Brown coaxes the correct words from her patients.

Stevenson is an incredibly captivating performer, even in mid-air – and often upside down. She captures the sense of being bottled in her own body, the feelings, first of terror, then frustration and fatigue that come from not being able to make herself understood. But this aerial display, impressive and striking as it is at first, comes to dominate the production in unhelpful ways. It interferes with the flow of emotions as Mrs Stilson’s brain untangles itself and she begins to heal.

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Juliet Stevenson takes to the air to play a woman recovering from a stroke