White Bear Theatre, 28 March – 22 April. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Peter Hamilton’s new play is a tale of two halves. The first act is knockabout hilarity as the story of Rob, a Romford driving instructor who’s never had a student pass their test, and his wife Lynn’s desperate quest for a baby unfolds. Rob’s unwillingness to have a sperm test leads Lynn’s sister, whose aspirations to become a vintner see her drinking more wine than one vineyard could ever produce, to suggest an unusual and quite Gallic solution – Lynn should have sex with Josie’s husband and Rob need never know. Meanwhile Rob ‘s poetic pretensions, previously limited to Facebook and Twitter, are finally given voice when he meets Mary-Jane, a student of Chinese poetry, and his desire to be a Chinese wilderness poet of the Tang dynasty becomes more urgent as real life begins to fall apart.
Rob’s quirks mean he is constantly looking for peace and solitude, “To break away from the thousand ties of life” like his hero Bai Juyi, and provide some fantastic moments as he makes deadpan pronouncements to bemused onlookers and tries to explain his thinking to his wife. Rob’s reaction to Lynn’s pregnancy – “I’m devastated with joy” is hysterical and heart-breaking – Hamilton at his best. After the pregnancy bombshell, the second act shows Rob withdrawing selfishly into his life as a poet, and the play’s narrative basically stops, becoming more navel gazing and fragments of mental breakdown – still funny, but should have been heavily edited. The final scenes bring satisfying closure for the main characters, and an uplifting ending for Rob.
Hamilton’s script is packed full of sharp one-liners, and the whole cast give wonderful performances, full of energy and humour. Jemma Burgess (Lynn) and Richard Fish (Greg)’s sex scene is gloriously absurd, and Josie Ayers flips between the insane voices of Rob’s Facebook friends with consummate ease and skill. Carla Freeman gives Josie a wonderfully haunted air of sadness and disappointment under the bravado. Rob is a brilliant creation – with Charles Sandford’s inspired performance making you want to hug him and slap him in equal measure. Watching a grown man watching bubbles float about should not be this entertaining, but Sandford’s pure childlike fascination and wonder is a joy to behold. As is his hysterical sperm test appointment; awkwardness and bizarre physical contortions make this an unforgettable scene. The interaction between Sandford and Evelyn Craven as his student are beautifully judged. Craven’s lovelorn looks completely lost on Rob, until a gesture from Rob that brought gasps from some members of the audience – that’s how real these characters feel, even in such a knowingly absurd plot.
Although it gets a little lost in the second act, The Poetry Of Exile is a funny, bittersweet night of bubbles, poetry, wine and Twitter abuse that is well worth a look.