That Is Not Who I Am - Royal Court
All is not what it seems at The Royal Court…
This review contains minor spoilers.
It is impossible to write a review of this production without spoilers, though I will do my best to limit the surprises, so if you want to experience the thrills for yourself book tickets and come back to read this another time.
We have been lied to. David Davidson is not real. But let’s be honest, thanks to the marketing buzz and the general chatter around this production, that was not too surprising. But what exactly we were in for remained a mystery.
Following an announcement, we are told that “the play [we] are about to see is different to the one advertised.” Instead, we are watching Rapture by Lucy Kirkwood. Yes, it is well-renowned writer Kirkwood behind all this! We are told that we have been misled due to legal and censorship troubles in order for the story of Noah and Celeste Quilter to be told. Many questions have been left unanswered around their deaths and therefore the Royal Court has agreed to covertly produce the play. This is a fun premise for a production and not one I’ve seen before. There is truly something exhilarating about an entire audience knowing absolutely nothing about what is going to happen next, allowing for a more unique theatrical experience.
We meet Noah and Celeste on their first date, raised above the stage in a bare white room cut out amongst a black backdrop. They flirt through shared conspiracies and it is effortless. A good fit for one another and our narrator, the playwright herself, agrees. Kirkwood, played by Priyanga Burford, guides us through the Quilter’s relationship as they fall in love, move in together and have a baby. This is a true-crime podcast brought to life and I am all in for it. The script and narrative are decisively captivating, gently iterating from scene to scene. Though there are more far-fetched moments, they prove entirely convincing as if lifted from a factual, real-life mystery. The narration is efficient and well crafted but Kirkwood’s dialogue is the star. It is facile, natural and flecked with topical nuances that reflect the years in which this play is set - simply outstanding.
Lucy Morrison and team have done a tremendous job with the casting for this production. Priyanga Burford is magnetic in her delivery, laying out the facts before us and filling in the gaps between scenes. She watches helplessly from the sidelines, true concern etched on her face. Across from her, Siena Kelly and Jake Davies are a marvel to watch. As a duo, they form one of the most convincing couples I have ever seen on stage. It felt like we were peeking through a window at a real couple rather than witnessing a play. Their performance, helped by Kirkwood’s excellent script, was perfection, ensuring it was impossible not to become ensnared in their story. This production is worth a visit for them alone.
Naomi Dawson’s set elegantly revolves as if atop a music box. With each rotation, it evolves as time passes through subtle editions of furniture, decoration and even some tiny wellington boots. With the walls stripped away and the theatrical equipment on show, it is as if we are watching a reconstruction of the Quilter’s life, for us to jointly examine what truly happened. This is incredibly effective in supporting the narrative. The stage management team are choreographed as part of this, visibly moving the production forward and providing the tools for the next chapter. Morrison’s direction seamlessly knits all the elements of this production together, delivering a standout and distinct piece of theatre, even when you strip away the gimmicks of the script. The work she has done with the actors is something special.
As said earlier, the ruse of this being a play within a play is an amusing tool that leaves an audience guessing, but as the play reaches its conclusion it begins to get in the way of the core Quilter plot that we have become enthralled by. Instead, the ending feels more like an inside joke rather than delivering a wholly satisfying conclusion. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to laugh or be shocked by what was happening. There are also questions about how this show was advertised - depicted as a play from a new writer, when in truth it was from a seasoned author, in a time when there are limited opportunities for those making their writing debut.
Kirkwood’s play is a fascinating examination of how truth and power often float out of reach of ordinary people. In a time when lies and misinformation are rampant, the Quilters, like many of us, seek to cut through the noise but instead are left with more questions than answers. Simply by asking, they place themselves in harm's way. Rapture makes for a breathtaking night of theatre that is well worth a trip to Sloane Square.
It runs until 16 July.
Photos: Manuel Harlan