A young man stands on the edge of a cliff. He strips off his bloodied hospital scrubs, his watch and his shoes and throws them over the edge. Shivering in just his boxers and socks, he frantically contemplates the suicidal urge to jump. That is the dramatic start to Under Electric Candlelight, a new play by Alice Briganti and Will Pattle.
We learn that our protagonist works in an A and E department at a hospital but he has fled from his role as a nurse that night. He begins to turn over the night’s events that have triggered his traumatic response. From the off, Will Pattle delivers a powerhouse performance that conveys his character’s intense mental conflict. He is a jittery blur of trembling, haunted vulnerability as he decides whether to jump. The truthfulness of his portrayal of a wounded man literally on the edge evokes such a strong reaction in the audience to want to save him.
And salvation does come on that night in the form of a woman who appears on the clifftop to pull him back from the edge. Giving the young man the nickname of ‘Stranger’, she diffuses the tension with some perfectly-pitched gallows humour. Commenting that dog walkers are always first to find the bodies of cliff jumpers, she challenges him if he really wants some Alsatian and its owner playing a tug of war with his intestines.
Having survived that night on the cliff, ‘Stranger’ develops a warm and supportive relationship with the woman. He learns she is called Lola, a namesake of the character in the famed song that he knows from his cherished collection of The Kinks’ records he inherited from his late mother.
Emma Wright deftly navigates the leftfield eccentricity of Lola and imbues her with the kind of grounded warmth that makes you want to hang out with her. She grows the character far beyond the trope of a crazy stranger who saves the troubled central character by challenging their way of thinking.
Under Electric Candlelight, with its themes of suicide and mental health, posits dark questions. As the play progresses, we discover ‘Stranger’ was treating a dying child whose mother had stabbed him seven times with a kitchen knife and he froze unable to perform his duties.
Recounting this critical incident, the writing is brutal, harrowing and evocative. “Spiderman socks” gives detail to the emotional weight causing the protagonist’s fugue’s state. Again kudos to Will Pattle’s eviscerating unpacking of this moment. Never overdone, never melodramatic, it is heartrending as we feel his character reach breaking point.
Although essentially a black box room, Luke Adamson’s production far elevates Under Electric Candlelight from its limited space.
Described as “Dark, funny and featuring the music of The Kinks”, you may wonder going in what the tunes of Ray and Dave Davies have to do with “an existential tragicomedy”. The play deploys a stunning soundscape throughout – sometimes evoking where ‘Stranger’ is, other times mirroring his mental state. The sound of waves below on the cliffside gives way to The Kinks’ “Catch Me Now I’m Falling”. While the group’s back catalogue provide a low-level pulse to the drama, occasionally certain songs bleed through poignantly. At the end of a monologue about the dying child, we hear “thank you for the days” from the 1968 track, pulling us from the despair. When ‘Stranger’ reaches his moment of epiphany of how to live with the darkness inside of him, “Stop Your Sobbing” is the musical underscore. The amount of care to ensure the sonic experience reflects the drama is evident. Similarly, evocative but inobtrusive lighting by JLA Productions supports the drama rather overwhelming or interrupting.
In an otherwise flawless production, there is a singular misstep. The naturalism of ‘Stranger’ and Lola’s interaction is interrupted at one point by a waiter whose lineage suggests the surly offspring of Julie Walter’s Two Soups waitress. It’s a mannered intrusion that feels like the play has suddenly lost its dramatic nerve and worrying it has gone too dark, decides to impose some shouty comedy schtick to break tension.
Under Electric Candlelight is an unflinching and sympathetic exploration of mental health and suicide. Thoughtfully written with a wonderfully well-plotted reversal seeded throughout the script, it is the kind of essential drama that lingers in the mind for days after. In the play’s two nuanced and depthful lead actors, Will Pattle and Emma Wright could rival any performance in the West End currently.
Bridge House Theatre was previously an inconsistent and underwhelming playing house. If Under Electric Candlelight is the sublime level of drama we can expect under Artistic Director Luke Adamson, theatre lovers should be getting on that train to Penge!
An enthusiastic 4 and a half stars