THEATRE has the power to move you to not move, but to stay rooted to your seat at the close, not wanting to break the moment.
Contemplation. Reflection. Solemnity in solitude yet a collective grief too. Such was the experience at Pocklington Arts Centre, in response to York community arts collective Next Door But One’s requiem to loss but one buoyed by hope for those left to pick up the pieces in the stillness, in the need to balance looking back with looking forward.
On a Yorkshire Thursday night, NDB1 played to an audience left in bits by writer-director Matt Harper-Hardcastle’s 56-minute, one-act two-hander. In the first two rows sat schoolchildren, hushed, attentive, and come the finale, needing the comfort of hugs.
Children are often introduced to death by the passing of a pet, but a hamster spinning off its mortal wheel will inevitably lead to greater collisions with life’s end. Harper-Hardcastle lost his mum all too young in 2016, prompting him post-counselling to write Operation Hummingbird, a play first presented in York libraries in 2021 and now revived for more Explore York sites, as well as the TakeOver Festival at York Theatre Royal, Pocklington and lastly Helmsley Arts Centre.
“Have you ever wished you could fast forward and ask the future you: ‘has everything turned out OK?’,” Harper-Hardcastle ponders.
Teenager Jimmy (cast returnee James Lewis-Knight) deals with his mum’s terminal cancer diagnosis by diving into the virtual world of computer games, head forever in his headset, fingers twitching on the console or reaching for the crisp packet.
Through his haven of virtual reality – a form of magic realism, if you prefer – he encounters James (NDB1 debutant David Lomond, from Scarborough): the man Jimmy will become 35 years later.
Lomond will play Jimmy’s dad too, and his mum, a change of character denoted by a scarf, typical of the no-frills staging by Harper-Hardcastle, who restricts his set to three boxes that accommodate props or can be used as a seat. Less is more here, from running time to cast size and set design, and the impact is consequently all the bigger both emotionally and visually too.
Boldness applies equally to subject matter and sparse performance style, but there is beauty, imagination and grace, even occasional humour, to Harper-Hardcastle’s rich, enveloping language, with its contrasts for young and adult voices, that lifts his poetic, profound drama to elegiac heights, aided by Abi Turner’s lighting.
The weight of grief, preceded by the anticipation of loss, is counterbalanced by Harper-Hardcastle’s passion for “the power of noticing just how far you’ve come”.
All is expressed in the performances of Lewis-Knight’s bewildered, distraught Jimmy, so full of questions not easy to answer, and Lomond’s bereft, tender, ever-supportive Dad and James, who provides words of advice and assurance as much for the audience as young Jimmy.
Next Door But One in Operation Hummingbird, Helmsley Arts Centre, tonight (2/6/2023) at 7.30pm. Box office: 01439 771700 or helmsleyarts.co.uk.
Suitable for age 11 plus. “This performance is for you if you’re a Jimmy, a James, or anywhere in between,” advises writer-director Matt Harper-Hardcastle.