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Lava review at Nottingham Playhouse – ‘compassionate, warm and funny’

Ted Reilly in Lava at Nottingham Playhouse

There’s been a catastrophe. Thousands are dead. But grief hits everyone in different ways.

The first production to be staged in Nottingham Playhouse’s Neville Studio under new artistic director Adam Penford is a new play by the always-interesting James Fritz.

Fritz homes in on the relationships between four people in the weeks after an asteroid devastates London. They’re still reeling. An asteroid? It seems ridiculous, almost to the point of believability. But it happened.

Vin (Ted Reilly) has stopped speaking after he lost his dad – the words just won’t come – which has put paid to his job in a call centre. Warm, good-natured Rach (Sofiyya Ingar) wants to help him through his grief. Her childhood friend Jamie (Fred Fergus), who lost his mum in the impact, thinks talking about it – and occasionally singing about – is the way to go. But he talks about his mum so much he starts to get on Rach’s nerves. Vin’s mum (Emma Pallant) is worried about her son, but also frustrated and also more than a little hurt that he seems more able to open up to Rach than to her.

The play is broken in to five parts, to match the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Fritz’s work pairs structural playfulness with emotional intelligence and inky wit. His fringe hit Ross and Rachel was a majestically dark unpacking of the idea of the ‘perfect couple’: two people the world have decided are meant to be together. Parliament Square explored a desperate act of protest and self-sacrifice. His plays are contained and compassionate, and frequently find reservoirs of humour in places you wouldn’t expect.

Angharad Jones’ production for Fifth Word complements the material perfectly, capturing the shifts in time and tone and making sure the laughs land. Reilly is excellent at layering Vin’s dazed silence with a mixture of regret, guilt and hope in his eyes, while Fergus gives a superb comic performance, a chipper, irritating exterior concealing his own feelings about his loss. Ingar and Pallant convey the mixture of care, confusion and occasional frustration that comes with loving someone who isn’t always honest with you and won’t let you near.

Designer Amy Jane Cook has created a black circular crater in the centre of the stage, an impact zone, but also a place in which emotions can pool. Video designer Louisa Rhoades-Brown uses the back wall to show Vin’s tentative attempts at communication by text. There’s a particularly striking moment when depression just seems to pour into Vin, to fill him up. It’s a beautiful bit of visual storytelling.

Fritz’s play bears a superficial similarity to Stuart Slade’s BU21, another play that used an extreme situation to explore human behaviour. But Lava feels more hopeful. It’s a play about connection and the cycle of grief, and depression too – given enough time, life can get brighter.

Parliament Square review at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘thought-provoking’

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Compassionate, emotionally astute and often very funny play about grief by James Fritz