Gazing at a Distant Star

★★★★★

Review by Laura Thomas

Written By Sian Rowland And Directed by James Haddrell

Three linked stories, and the loss and guilt felt by family members, each judging their actions in the harsh light of hindsight, are told by a capable cast. Dan and Arun were bright but socially awkward kids in a south London school. They, and their inspirational teacher Jane, provide the common thread to this work.

Right from the off, Rowland’s dialogue sparkles with authenticity and humour. Dreamy teenager Arun (Harpal Hayer) is struggling with a zero-hours, minimum wage job in a call centre, notionally saving for university, but tempted, by his best mate Glen, to binge on pizza and skunk.

Photographer credit is Warren King

Reluctant athlete Anna (Serin Ibrahim), in training for a charity run, is a brilliantly nuanced comic creation, a shrewdly and affectionately observed 20-something sassy Londoner. Rowland has a real knack for comedy (she writes also for News Review at the Canal Café).

The characters and their background are shown in series of everyday scenes, comedic at first, then gradually darkening, as the actors take other roles each other’s unfolding drama.

Single mum Karen bonds with the sticky faced purple gargoyle put on her chest, her only son Dan, explaining her life choices to her Dad (Hayer); Glen is sick over Jenny’s shoes, and Arun takes him home; Anna likes family sized bars of Dairy Milk: these episodes are not presented chronologically, but Rowland never puts a step wrong in keeping us informed and entertained.

Almost imperceptibly, the work moves from comedy toward tragedy, we meet Anna’s sister Jane and her controlling boyfriend Pete (a terrifying creation by the capable Hayer). Karen battles to bring up her truculent teenager, as he goes through his emo, black hair and piercings stage. Arun is determinate to fulfil the vicarious ambition of his parents, whatever the personal cost.

Photographer credit is Warren King

As the tension grows so the story of Karen (Victoria Porter) starts to come into focus. We know her as a loving and capable mum, and ocean of love and common sense, and an anchor for her troubled son Dan and his geeky mates, including Arun. The reveal of her story, when it comes, is sudden and brutal, and then the superb Porter kicks up a gear in intensity.

There is a chilling confrontation between Anna and Pete, Arun is devastated when the cost of his life’s choices catch up with Glen. But it is Karen, and Porter’s stunning playing of her, that dominates the closing third of the play.

Quiet and understated, never overplayed (she hardly ever raises her voice), she gives a performance of white-hot fury. With every hand turned against her, she stands alone, unbroken and unashamed, devastated by guilt and regret, but never, for a moment, wavering in her utter, complete and unconditional loyalty to her son. She is a worthy standard-bearer for mothers of lost sons everywhere.
And just when everything is at its darkest, Rowland twitches at a curtain, and lets a glimmer of light enter, the hope of a happy ending for at least one of the families.

The show completes its run in the newly opened studio at the Greenwich Theatre on the 28th, let’s hope for a West End Transfer or a tour.

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