Dealing with topical issues in theatre is always a balancing act between being heavy handed and being flippant. There is no shortage of issues raised in Sightline’s production of Hostage, from toxic friendships to suicide and eating disorders. Francesca Haydon-White’s script includes some beautifully poetic moments and nuanced insights. Even if it does sometimes stray into blunter and more educational theatre territory, there is plenty to enjoy. This is particularly impressive given that the show was put together with just two weeks of rehearsals and, with the announcement of a second Coronavirus lockdown, was suddenly switched from being live to being filmed.
There are two versions of the main character: we see her aged 15 and aged 25. Matilda Hubble plays the younger version of Summer and Jennifer Lafferty plays the older one. Although both versions of Summer are on stage the entire time, the script is structured more as a fragmentary series of monologues. Only a few direct actions are sprinkled in. At some points, one performer acts out what the other describes. This is done in ways that can occasionally feel gratuitous. For example, Hubble dons a hat and scarf to illustrate being cold at a winter market, but only for a line or so. They are then discarded for the rest of the show.
On the other hand, the actors are occasionally just too static. Lafferty gives some heart-wrenching speeches with pitch-perfect delivery. However, the impact of her performance is undercut by the fact that she is so often confined to sitting or standing neutrally in one spot. As the younger Summer, Hubble gets more freedom. Her characterisation, with its emotional complexity, is compelling. The few moments where the two actors directly interact are the real highlights of this production, as they feed off each other’s energy and seem to quicken the pace.
Hostage is a good play, featuring two strong performers and a script with some real emotional authenticity. It takes a refreshingly frank approach to hard-hitting topics. However, it does sometimes feel too even and too rigid, without space to breathe. A lot of the descent into illness and addition blurs together. Early in the play there is a dance routine to Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’. This scene is striking and memorable because it is one of the few, brief moments of levity.
There can be no doubt that writer and director Francesca Haydon-White (along with Assistant Director Ella Al-Khalil Coyle and Shadow Director Anna Pycock) has created something special. When the show does manage to walk that fine line, it is an incredible piece of theatre. It builds to a memorable confrontation and the final scene in particular shows all of the production’s greatest strengths. It is a great shame that circumstances robbed it of the time and opportunity to reach its full potential. It is, nevertheless, absolutely worth watching for the moments of brilliance that shine through.
Sightline Productions’ play ‘Hostage’ will be available to stream online until 8pm on Sunday 22nd November. Tickets can be purchased on the Durham Student Theatre website. A teaser trailer is available on the Sightline Productions Facebook page. Please be aware that this production contains material pertaining to addiction, suicide and eating disorders.
Image: Anna Pycock.