Sat, 24 Oct 2020
Small Hours: Mandala Theatre Company, at in front rooms everywhere, from October 18 – 25
Review by JON LEWIS
Lockdown has given Oxford’s Mandala Theatre Company an opportunity to explore an exciting new direction. With support from the IF science festival, the Oxford Playhouse and Oxford University’s Sleep & Circadian Neuroscience Institute, Mandala’s artistic director Yasmin Sidhwa worked with filmmaker Ben Johnston to broadcast a new play by Ava Wong Davies, Small Hours, on YouTube for the festival.
With young people in lockdown struggling with mental health issues, the playwright presents four characters in their 20s who find it difficult to sleep. The actors produce mature, compelling performances with close-ups heightening nuanced glances and reactions to unexpected directions of conversations. It comes as a real surprise when one scene explodes into a surreal, heightened burst of dance that physicalises the swirling tiredness that fills the character’s head.
Nush (Anusha Abbas) and Aisha (Akasha Daley) were lovers at university and are uneasily exploring their relationship now they are apart in lockdown. Aisha confesses that she cannot sleep, staying up at night with the lights on. Nush gets bad news about her father. A month later, Nush is stalking Solomon (Nelvin Kiratu), a wealthy and confident financier who is constantly tired due to taking early morning flights from Britain to East Asia. Overseas he suffers from sleeplessness caused by jet lag. Even though she is a graduate, Nush is enmeshed in multiple portfolio low paid jobs, her work worries causing sleep loss that was made worse by her split with Aisha and the loss of her father.
Aisha’s brother Luis (Luis Ribeiro) is kept awake by his baby without the support of the mother. His tiredness is exacerbated by working night shifts. He gets panic attacks and chest pains. In the only scene where two of the cast are filmed together, Luis encounters Solomon on a floodlit street, bonding over cadged cigarettes and conversing about the worrying spate of muggings in the area.
The drama surprises as each character finds extreme or novel ways to find to get to sleep. The hour-long play, which was rehearsed over Zoom with actors in separate locations, is coherent and gripping. With imaginative editing and a fine track composed by Duotone, Small Hours will linger long in the memory.