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  • Henry Longstaff

Sputnik Sweetheart - Arcola Theatre

Haruki Murakami’s novel of loneliness envisioned for the stage

Sputnik Sweetheart
Photograhy - Alex Brenner


There is a murkiness to Murakami’s novel, deliberate vagueness and ambiguity plague the scenes landing somewhere between intrigue into the unknown and frustration at the lack of satisfying conclusions. Bryony Lavery’s adaptation leans heavily into this style, staying close to the original writing but the output, though freeing from traditional narrative, will not be to everyone’s taste.

Millicent Wong plays Sumire, a young Japanese writer suffering from writer's block, unable to scribe the stories she is so desperate to tell. At a wedding, she meets a woman 17 years her senior and for the first time in her life finds herself infatuated by another person. She orbits our narrator K, who in turn is desperately in love with her but has resigned in the knowledge that she will never look at him the same way he looks at her. The love story makes way for a mystery when worlds split and Sumire goes missing. Bizarre and unpredictable the plot is enticing but foggy as collective memories and perspectives collide and confuse unable to spark entirely to life - possibly better remaining in its original paperback form.

The design of this production is delightful, with Sonoko Obuchi's charming hand-drawn video design taking centre stage. Obuchi wonderfully captures the anime style, delicately complimenting the on-stage action and aligns itself neatly with the cheeky tone present in the first half of the piece. Lighting and sound from Malcolm Rippeth and Tatsujiro Oto (composer and sound associate) are playful and precise working in thematic tandem with the script, generating an attractive timbre to the play, nestled between a quirky indie rom-com and anime mystery.

The cast does well in delivering the adaptation, shifting gracefully through scenes under the direction of Melly Still, her vision clear and robust in the almost ethereal style of the piece. The mostly blank space they occupy allows scope for movement and versatility, almost weightless without the grounding scenery. Designer Shizuka Hariu, utilising a phone booth in her set, the booth able to move and spin in choreographed motion, further enhancing the drama. Millicent Wong leads the proceedings unattached and lonely, forever desiring whatever is out of reach. Her portrayal is convincing but restricted by the nature of the play, her character limited, existing only through K’s eyes. As K, Naruto Komatsu equally has a strong outing but his character becomes sidelined, often doomed to watch on and it therefore becomes difficult to connect with him as we are limited in his character’s intentions beyond the obvious - the script doing the character little favours.

I imagine this play will split opinions, those more agreeable to the imprecise plot will find sanctuary in pieces such as these, the uncertain narrative a space to let the imagination wander but for many the charm and style on offer will not go far enough to paper the cracks in the fiction, instead gifting a bemused after taste that will quickly wash away.

Running until 25th November - Tickets

Photography - Alex Brenner

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