In her dying moments, Christine (Rebecca Manley) is granted the power to see her children, Ashe (Katie West), Jess (Witney White) and Steven (David Moorst). Like a northern Dickensian ghost, she visits them all, travelling from Blackpool to Durham in a final gesture of love and grief.
Light Falls represents Sarah Frankcom’s swansong as artistic director of Manchester’s Royal Exchange. It also sees her reuniting with her regular collaborator, playwright Simon Stephens.
The two of them travelled together across cities in the north in search of stories to inspire them, a collage of experiences of the country past Watford. The resulting play succeeds as a snapshot of a family at the moment of fracture but, as a portrait of the north, it only mines one long seam of pain. Having introduced this grim tone early on, there is no escape or release in the second half, leaving the audience marooned in a pool of sadness.
Frankcom’s stylised direction weaves together timelines and locations as the actors pass through each others’ worlds. This serves to mark the impermanence and insignificance of the family’s lives. The lack of stage furniture forces them to confront each other head on. There is nowhere to hide on Naomi Dawson’s set of giant plywood steps; the emphasis is placed on the Royal Exchange’s dramatic glass amphitheatre.
When Stephens’ writing hits the mark, it’s rip-your-heart-out stuff, undeniably true and laced with spiky humour. It sounds odd, but the most enjoyable parts of the play are those spent preparing for a threesome in Doncaster. The story of Christine’s husband Bernard (Lloyd Hutchinson) is the most excruciatingly human. Carla Henry gives a stand out performance as his mistress Michaela, well balanced by Mercedes Assad as erotic third-wheel Emma. The whole play could easily have taken place amid this triangle, a sexy tryst that’s both wonderfully awkward and full of messy emotion.
Overall, Light Falls appears more concerned with making big statements than action or revelation. The children’s relationships are not given space to breathe and lack complexity. After Jess and Michael (Tachia Newall) wake up together after a drunken night, their playful getting-to-know each other banter quickly escalates. Staring out to (presumably) sea, Jess implores her new paramour “not to fall in love with her” like something out of a morbid teen movie.
The original music by Jarvis Cocker boils down to one song. The lush and full Hymn of the North is spliced to fit the play’s moments and characters; full of longing and the rich booms of a war cry, it’s a stirring anthem that summarises Stephens’ definition of the northern psyche as, to paraphrase, being better at putting up with the rain. This is fitting – rain pours down on this family in bucket-loads of grief, pain, addiction and heartbreak.