Separation by Tom Kempinski Caxton Theatre, Grimsby. 21 January 2020.
The Caxton Players from Grimsby have chosen to stage a challenging two-hander this month, Separation by Tom Kempinski. The story of two strangers who meet via a long-distance phone call and become so much more, as their friendship develops.
Though not especially well-known, this is the second time that the Caxton Players have staged this play and I must say, it seems fresh and dramatic in the hands of director Stephen Labourne. The play take us back to simpler times, when there was no social media, no internet and no video calling. Instead, it was a case of picking up the phone and spending a small fortune to communicate with someone on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. This piece is set in the early 1980s and deals with the complex relationship between a writer and his muse.
Joe is a playwright who has experienced modest levels of success, but who is now burdened by both writers' block and agoraphobia. His world changes when he approached by a struggling actress seeking permission to stage his play in New York. From such unlikely beginnings, a friendship and an affinity is established.
We soon realise that struggling actress Sarah, is hampered in her career by a condition which limits the roles she can perform, but that Joe's play is a perfect fit for her despite everything. Both are outsiders; neither fit neatly into any traditional pigeon hole within the industry but their friendship proves beneficial to both. Joe agrees to allow her to stage the play and Sarah proves more than capable in performing the role.
As their friendship and co-dependency deepens, we are shown facets of their personalities that perhaps they would prefer remain hidden. Nevertheless we see a growing affection and the trans-Atlantic bond between the two strengthens and promises more as the story progresses. The play has an autobiographical slant as Kempinski admits to having ballooned in weight to 23 stone in real life and in many ways may be a form of theatrical catharsis, though a level of self-loathing is apparent because the playwright is not portrayed in a glowing light here. He is overweight, mentally fragile, angry and full of self-doubt. Sarah by way of contrast, is seen coping with her condition and demonstrating fortitude and resolve as she does so. It is interesting how in the second act, the roles in some ways, begin to reverse but I have no intention of spoiling the plot here.
Joe, portrayed by Stewart Dodds, is a nervous, paranoid individual and gives a winning performance that will put a smile on the face of the audience. Joe's irascible nature could grate in the hands of a lesser performer, but Dodds imbues him with a charm that re-assures us and persuades us to root for him. His frenetic pacing and frustrated ticks and mannerisms perfectly capture the character of a frustrated, overweight playwright forced into a self-imposed exile. Joe sabotages his own chances of success repeatedly but the audience never gives up hope in him.
In Sarah, played by Mollie Charnley, we have a very different kind of outsider. Sarah is an aspiring actress who just cannot get a break when casting directors refuse to see past her need to use crutches for stability, and has been struggling to find a role that she could play truthfully and convincingly. Joe's play offers hope and understanding to Sarah in the form of its disabled main character. Sarah is altogether more optimistic and determined than Joe and once again the audience finds itself rooting for her too. Charnley's accent is impeccable and her grace, wit and charm ooze from her performance in a consistently credible way.
We thoroughly recommend this play and encourage anyone to see it. It will not disappoint but it will challenge, amuse and surprise you. Above all it entertains. The show runs from Saturday 25th January - Saturday 1st February 2020. See poster for ticket details.
Reviewer: Andy Evans 21/01/20