FROM GREAT THINGS TO GREATER THINGS. This motto is on a sign I walk past frequently in east London. I happened to see it again last Thursday and later that day thought it was immediately applicable to the play I saw. Last year I happened to see Siân Rowland’s Life Sentence performed twice at two separate new writing events and on each occasion, that monologue had been one of the highlights of the evening. Since then, Rowland has built upon Life Sentence, linking it to two other monologues to make a triptych – all related to people who go missing for various reasons. If Life Sentence was a ‘great thing’, then Gaze At A Distant Star (as it is now called with direction from James Haddrell) is assuredly ‘a greater thing’.
Rowland takes her time in this play, allowing each of the characters to build upon the minutiae of their lives and explain how and why the missing person they know is important, and their absence suspicious. Each of the monologues dovetail into the others, running for 5-10 minutes per person before moving to the next character…
Anna (Serin Ibrahim) is training for a charity 5k run. Now that she doesn’t go out so much anymore, the thought of regularly devoting time to keeping fit ‘makes more sense’, with encouragement from her partner a bonus. It’s only when someone out of the blue mistakes her for her sister Jane who disappeared years before that Anna’s feelgood demeanour unravels at the rate of knots and the memories of her unhappier times come flooding back…
Working as a cold-calling telesalesperson, Arun (Harpal Hayer) sticks with this less-than-ideal job to pay for his university fees. With zero contracts, zero interest from those they call and zero prospects, Arun and his colleagues have little to be happy about. Then one day Glen, one of Arun’s colleagues, disappears. Is this the response of someone who just has had enough or is it indicative of something else?
At the centre of Gaze At A Distant Star is Karen Appleton (Victoria Porter) whose son Daniel has taken to being withdrawn and not taking part in the things that other teenagers do. He does however decide to go on a lads’ holiday in Bulgaria. What she finds out next leaves her absolutely devastated. How does she face her neighbours, everyone she knows and apologise for what her son has been getting up to?
Of the three monologues, Porter’s is the most potent in how it moves the audience and conveys the love that a mother has for her child. Hayter brings a certain physicaility to Arun, whose verbal elequence is eclipsed by his non-verbal expressiveness. Meanwhile Ibrahim’s Anna is engaging and believable as a young woman who finds herself caught up in the current of the past and unable to break free again.
This production is the first time that all three monologues have been performed together, each monologue’s power to move compounded by the other interwoven narratives. Produced in conjunction with the charity Missing People, it has for years been aiding the police and general public alike with tracing people who have slipped through the system. For some people who are ‘missing’, it’s a deliberate choice so they won’t be tracked down and subjected to further physical and sexual abuse. For others, they end up ‘in the wrong crowd’, foregoing contact with anyone from their ‘former life’. Then there are those on the fringes of society in the ‘dead end’ jobs who are ‘invisible’ to society and fall through the cracks when they are on really hard times. Gaze At A Distant Star reminds us of the myriad reasons why people disappear, the anguish for those left behind and the necessity of society to address this.
© Michael Davis 2017
Gazing At A Distant Star runs at Greenwich Theatre until 29th January 2017.
On a separate note, watch Carol Morley’s documentary Dreams Of A Life (2011), which superbly illustrates how a popular, young woman from north London ‘disappeared’ without so much as an alarm raised. Sobering proof that people are more ‘alone’ than ever in today’s world…