Beautiful and Devastating: Solomon and Atlanta is almost everything I had hoped it would be
Callie O'Brien reviews...
When I walked into the packed-out Banham Theatre the other Tuesday Night, I sat down expecting to be washed away by a heartbreaking queer love story forged by the tragic events of the AIDS crisis. What I ended up getting was a poignant commentary on fading youth, fleeting love, and a particular kind of grief, powerfully captured by a committed cast and production team.
Image: The Storyteller (Evan Harris) sat down, addressing the audience. The rest of the cast are silhouetted behind them in a warm light.
Evan Harris's enrapturing narration is the perfect mouthpiece for the play - ruminating on all the things left unsaid by Matthew Dangerfield's Atlanta and filling us in on unspoken histories. Together, the two led us through the night's nostalgic, bittersweet love story. At first, I found this split-role delivery to be a tad jarring with a scattering of lines spoken in almost-unison (perhaps I initially expected a more Waller-Bridge's Fleabag-esque delivery) but over time I settled into the slightly unusual style and let myself be swept along for the ride.
Harris was given the lion's share of lines in the play which they handled admirably - not once fumbling a line of writer Harry Daisley's sophisticated script and consistently commanding the audience's full attention with a marvellous, compelling stage presence.
Matthew Dangerfield is similarly engaging with his sharp-witted and sometimes bombastic embodiment of Atlanta, though what I found most striking was his impeccably precise and emotionally telling body language. Where Harris spoke the innermost thoughts of Atlanta, we would see these very aptly reflected in Dangerfield's careful gesture work.
Maddy Swindells' roles, first as Atlanta's housemate Tracy and later ex-classmate Betty and other minor roles, were a perfect complement to Dangerfield: the two had an energetic chemistry and constantly bounced off each other, even leaning into the nervous first-night fumbles. Swindells seems built for multi-roling, with each new stage appearance given individual life with powerful characterisation, clever voice work, and highly commendable and varied body language.
Image: Tracy (Maddy Swindells) is sat on a fluffy carpet, comforting flatmate Atlanta (Matthew Dangerfield) who is lying in the foetal position on the white sofa behind her.
The show certainly had a lot to say in its flyby 80 minute runtime which perhaps lead to some moments feeling a little rushed: I would have loved to spend more time getting to know Tracy, and seeing the tension between Solomon and Atlanta grow over the course of the coffee date (minus the coffee) before Solomon starts to spill his secrets. Though, I suppose the fleeting nature of the latter is only fitting.
With all that said, the show does a remarkable job of keeping us on the edge of our seats: teasing us with brief glances and moments with the mysterious Solomon before we finally meet Morgan King's mature, weary, and genuinely moving rendition of the character. He perfectly embodies the intellectual philosophy professor and the heart-wrenching disposition of a religious, closeted gay man. Their delivery is utterly sincere, and you can feel the stage just brimming with Solomon's dread, grief, and regret as we are let into but a fragment of his story.
Image: Solomon (Morgan King) and Atlanta (Matthew Dangerfield) sitting at a decorated café table. They seem happy.
The script's (and King's) handling of sensitive themes is careful and mature - punchy when the story needs it to be but with a real recognition of the reality behind the words. The play certainly speaks to the queer experience, and I was particularly struck by the "planned, paranoid secrecy" through which Solomon and Atlanta had their first romantic interactions: an experience I'm sure many queer audience members can ruminate with.
We discover early in the play that Atlanta is a theatre reviewer and we see a number of jabs at this throughout - certainly amusing to the critics among us. This along with several surgically placed comedic moments lifted the show with just the right level of lightheartedness to keep the audience along for the ride, even as our hearts are torn out in the latter part of the play.
The play was brought together by a simple yet striking lighting design and a truly stunning set which, paired with the careful use of soundtrack, really unified the play into a singular memorable experience. (I overheard many compliments to the set from the sold-out audience before the lights went down). The show's standout piece of design, I feel, was some highly evocative silhouette work which really echoed the show's themes of fading memories. We view Atlanta's memories of that perfect 1974 summer through a backlit gauze, with only Harris's exquisite narration and our own wistful imaginations filling us in on the details. This all sings the praises of a clearly dedicated and skilled prod team (Harry Daisley, Saffy Wehren, Phoebe Sanders, and Izzy Bates) who were committed to honing every aspect of the show.
Image: The Storyteller (Evan Harris) is illuminated in cold blue light. Around them are some evocative setpieces: to their left, a vintage standing lamp and below it a potted plant, and above them are two floating red envelopes, hung from the ceiling.
Words: Callie O'Brien