Hidden away in a far-flung corner of St. Mary’s College, First Theatre Company’s production of 4000 Miles is an intimate, honest and at times hilarious portrayal of loss, loneliness and liberalism. The venue, tucked into a corner of the college Chapel, perfectly suits the atmosphere of Vera’s West Village apartment: homely, but a touch voyeuristic. As the audience we sometimes felt as though we are intruding on something deeply private, made all the more intense by the proximity of the cast.
Leo — played with a lazy insouciance by Jack Usher — is a young “gap yah” type who drops in unexpectedly on his cantankerous grandmother Vera (Stine Revheim Svellingen) after a cross-country bike trip. The physicality of the two leads is immediately apparent, and they complemented one another rather nicely. Svellingen captured the stance and mannerisms of an octogenarian without a single slip, shuffling and heaving across the tiny set with a kind of grim determination so characteristic of the extremely old. I felt something of my own 92-year-old grandmother in her breathless facial contortions, and in her charity-shop costume choices. Usher embraced the not-quite-adult qualities that Leo embodies – filling the tiny space that his grandmother only half occupies, at times sprawling his limbs, at others unleashing boundless energy, as though not quite sure what to do with himself.
At heart, Vera and Leo are more similar than they both realise. Both have experienced heartbreaking loss, and, unsure how to deal with it, run – Leo to the wilderness after the death of his best friend Micah, and Vera to the guest bedroom after her husband’s battle with cancer. They share a relationship unique between grandparent and grandson; a lack of boundaries, and a shared disdain for the generation between them. Through their conversations we learn more about their tangled lives, and are forced to confront old age, sometimes through comedy and often through tragedy. Leo’s would-be one night stand Amanda (a hilarious performance from Coco Collard) expresses more revulsion at meeting “ghost-like” Vera than she does minutes earlier when describing the horrors that communism inflicted on her Polish family. Although often working as the comic relief, Svellingen’s performance aches with a well-hidden fear of her own old age, of “losing her words” and of her very real, crushing loneliness. Yet in a way, she turns the idea of what an old lady should be on its head; she is outspoken about sex and politics, and has a wicked comic timing.
Towards the end of the play we begin to see how Leo feels the same, trapped and isolated in an eternal adolescence despite dealing with some distressingly adult situations. His put-upon (ex-)girlfriend Bec (Elle Morgan-Williams) describes their friends as “actual grownups” and is clearly trying to be one – the chemistry and hurt between her and Leo feels as though we are intruding on an extremely private moment. The anger between them is a little sudden, especially given Leo’s laid-back demeanour up until that moment. In her second appearance, Morgan-Williams gives a nuanced, emotional performance of a woman trying her best to become the grown-up that she aspires to be.
This contemporary story is ambitious yet slightly confusing, and consequently the production occasionally suffered from issues of pacing. The choice not to use American accents in a clearly American setting is a bold one that worked reasonably well, except for some words and phrases which seemed out of place. Although only a single act, the play was divided well by using effective lighting transitions, with the ending showing the only technical hitch: a fade to black would have been expected, and without it we are left a little unsure whether the play had finished. With any luck, these first night bumps will be smoothed out for future performances.
At its heart, 4000 Miles embraces the theme of a journey; Leo’s grand bike trip is nothing compared to the growing up he must do under Vera’s watchful eye. This performance is a hidden gem of Durham theatre – do not miss it!