The production team for Sparks certainly did a good job creating the publicity for the show: even before walking into the theatre, I was intrigued by the play’s description, and the poster which showed two female actors staring intently at a fishbowl on a kitchen table covered with bottles of alcohol. I am pleased to say the production succeeds in delivering the quirky, funny and bittersweet story the publicity promises. Both actors are wonderfully engaging storytellers, and I was wrapped up in the reality of the characters’ lives from start to finish.
Written by Simon Longman, Sparks tells the story of two estranged sisters brought back together after twelve years. Most of the play focuses on the slow process of the older sister Jess attempting to re-establish her relationship with her younger sister Sarah, making the ending where Jess leaves Sarah, who has just begun to trust her again, with Jess’ young son all the more painful. In an interview with Purple radio, director Isobel Jacob stated that ‘The characters don’t want you to be watching’, and this sense that the audience is intruding on an intimate, awkward moment is definitely created in the small space of the Ustinov room, with the simple set of a table and a few boxes. The stage is set with blue lights, reflecting the sound effect of rain which plays throughout. Initially I found this noise irritating, feeling it detracted from the awkward atmosphere created on stage. However, right at the end of the play there is a moment when the rain stops, and this makes the silence of this moment palpably uncomfortable, portraying the crushing loneliness inside Sarah’s head.
The lights cause the actors’ shadows to be thrown onto the back wall, which is a lovely detail, possibly representing how the past which these characters are so clearly reluctant to talk about haunts them throughout the play. However, I personally was not a fan of the scene changes and use of blackouts to show the passage of time, particularly in the scene where Sarah is on drugs and the actors constantly change position to show her becoming increasingly high. The actors were still visible in the blackouts, and this technique felt slightly GCSE for what is otherwise such a professional show.
As a two woman show, the success of this play is almost entirely dependent on the creation of a believable relationship between the sisters, which is accomplished masterfully by Gayaneh Vlieghe playing Jess and Athena Tzallas playing Sarah. I cannot imagine the roles being better cast; the actors even look similar enough to be convincing sisters. From the first moment, where Vlieghe enters soaking wet with her massive backpack cheerfully clutching her fishbowl, her infectious energy is visceral and carries the play. Her naturalistic delivery and matter of fact tone make her moments of vulnerability and desperation for her sister not to view her as a “fuck up” all the more poignant. We get a sense that Jess is hiding something from her sister, and this balance between honest cheerfulness and subtle manipulation is navigated by Vlieghe impressively. While I applaud the understated acting, I feel this occasionally dampened the emotion, and would have liked to see slightly more variety of expression from Vlieghe. That being said, Vlieghe’s characterization is impeccable, and I was particularly impressed that there was not a single noticeable line slip despite the sheer number of lines Vlieghe has to deliver.
Vileghe’s aimless rambling and the restless energy she brings to Jess perfectly offsets Tzallas’ portrayal of Sarah as still, reserved and yet curious as to why her sister is here. Tzallas brings a beautiful arc of development to her character, as we as the audience get to see her slowly come out of her shell. Subtle moments where Sarah smiles at her sister’s ramblings feel entirely unforced and therefore genuinely sweet. Act 2 opens with an unforgettably funny monologue from Tzallas about the time Sarah punched a swan, and her cathartic release of frustration in screaming at this imaginary bird had the audience in stitches. Her final monologue where she reveals her dependency on her sister, repeatedly asking the plaintive question “are you there?” is beautifully delivered, balancing ecstatic joy with fear of being abandoned once again.
Sparks is a beautiful and authentic portrayal of an attempt to rebuild family relationships, and I particularly enjoyed the insight it gives into the lives of two complex and well developed female characters. The sense of history that is created between the actors is really special, and the cast and crew should be proud of having pulled off such a difficult play with resounding success.
Photography by Durham Photographer by Matt Jaworski