Ava Wong Davies’ latest play Graceland catches you off-guard with mixed results. At its best, the 75-minute monologue is sharp, with a well-timed rhythm conveying the intensity and emotion behind a moment. The difficulty, however – and what ultimately prevents me from connecting with the piece as much as one wanted to – was a gear change about halfway through, when it was clear that the production was actually about a violent and abusive relationship.
Up until the moment that became apparent as the central narrative, I was lulled into the assumption that this would be an unremarkable girl-meets-boy romance, aided by Jai Morjaria’s warm lighting design and composer and sound designer Anna Clock’s throbbing score.
Our protagonist Nina – boldly portrayed by Sabrina Wu – meets “You” (not us) at a barbecue. At one point this is sidetracked by a ineffective subplot around the woman’s difficult relationship with her father, suggesting this newfound relationship might unearth some familial trauma or secret the woman has been trying to repress.
Instead, what’s unearthed is all the dirt around the stage. Mydd Pharo’s set design sees a solitary bed surrounded by mounds of dirt, some of which spatters the grey walls situated on two walls placed either side of the stage (we view the rectangular set from either side). It’s a simple enough metaphor – a relationship muddied by domestic violence – but equally, it can summarise an overall lack of clarity and cleanliness to the plot’s progression. Skin and thumbs are an unusual motif across an otherwise rich and heavily visual script which says so much more with so few words. So detailed are the descriptions that the collective wincing at some lines from the whole audience was quite something, and revealing as to just how engrossing Wong Davies’ writing can be at times.
Unfortunately, the direction (first Anna Himali Howard, then Izzy Rabey when the former had to step back from rehearsals due to family illness) only adds to the confusion. While many other monologue performers will signify a character change with an adjustment to their posture, a handful of lines are delivered by Wu with little indication as to who is speaking, not even from the dialogue alone, although the actor does at least demonstrate an anxiety whenever the lines of “You” are read in a way which generates some anticipation for what she says next. Key scenes are bookmarked by a particular gesture or some relevant body language.
Even before the thick haze is added in, it’s hard to make out exactly where the production is heading – and tragically, not in a way which generates much suspense, either.
Graceland is now playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 11 March.
Captioned and relaxed performances will take place on 3 and 11 March respectively.
Production Images: Ali Wright.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Graceland’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and while I previously worked with Ava Wong Davies on a voluntary critics scheme in 2020, all opinions stated above are honest and my own.
Note: This piece was amended on 17 February to include the character name of Nina, and provide directing credits.