Review by Daz Gale
One of the highlights in the theatrical calendar each year is when Chichester Festival Theatre begin their season. Quite often you are witnessing the future of the West End with last years sensational musical Crazy For You soon to be seen in London. As the season kicks off, it’s not a musical but a play that is getting people talking as UK audiences finally get another chance to see 4000 Miles more than 1000 days after it was originally due to open. But was it worth the wait?
Written by Amy Herzog, 4000 Miles was first seen in 2011 and has enjoyed multiple runs off-Broadway. In 2020 it was announced to play at The Old Vic starring Eileen Atkins and a little known actor named Timothee Chalamet – but this was ultimately cancelled thanks to the pesky pandemic. The show tells the story of 21 year old Leo who goes to visit his elderly grandmother Vera in New York. As the two reconnect, we learn about events from both of their pasts, similarities and extreme differences in their natures and views as they connect again.
Amy Herzogs writing beautifully encapsulates the relationship between a grandmother and a grandson, particularly one that has been fractured from distance and neglect. The initial reluctance and gradual reconnection thanks to refreshing familiarity creates a heart-warming story with relatable moments many of us can draw comparisons with. I found myself thinking back to my own grandmother and the conversations I’d have with her. In that respect, 4000 Miles is a gorgeous exploration of family and the special bond that can span generations.
Amys writing is regularly funny, both in the lines themselves and the absurdity of certain elements, drawing on a classic “odd couple” narrative of Leo and Vera. With some graphic and unlikely conversations and some sexual overshares from both of them, it can lead to some laugh out loud moments – particularly in one humorous and fantastically delivered scene where the pair smoke pot together. The humour is joined with some darker moments as we explore some more serious themes such as loneliness in elderly people and facing your own demons and traumatic moments from your past. To that, 4000 Miles can’t be faulted in regards to its writing.
Originally due to star in the show in 2020, Eileen Atkins has remained with the production to play the role of Vera – and for that we should all be thankful. Eileen gives a masterclass performance as the 91 year old who lives out her days not used to sharing her personal spade and has to get used to this new familiarity of family in her presence with the fear of it all going away again. Eileen plays the role sensitively but with bundles of humour in a a performance that feels natural and authentic. An utterly charming performance, Eileen truly becomes the character of Vera making us all fall in love with her, get to know her intimately (at times TOO intimately) and truly feel for her as she deals with the frustration of forgetting things, shaking hands and an unspoken loneliness.
Sebastian Croft takes on the role of Leo. Best known for his role in TV series Heartstopper, Sebastian is no stranger to the stage and shows why he feels right at home on there in a fantastic performance. As the complicated Leo, Sebastian gives a charming and convincing performance, perfectly delving into all the complexities as Leo struggles to come to terms with recent events and what he wants from life. The performance is elevated thanks to a beautiful chemistry with Eileen Atkins as the two have a natural rapport creating a believable grandmother/grandson dynamic.
While 4000 Miles is predominantly dominated by Croft and Atkins, two other characters get fleeting moments on stage. Neil Barlow brings a new energy with a great turn as Bec while Elizabeth Chu gives a memorable turn with her brief time as Amanda, both playing against Sebastian Crofts Leo in differing ways and allowing him to reveal more about his character, and indeed, his own acting ability.
Peter McKintosh’s set design gives a great representation of Veras very much lived in New York apartment, littered with books at every angle. Its static nature feels homely and comforting which is very much in-keeping with the theme. Peter Mumfords lighting design is varied in its approach with varying degrees of success. At times too dark and others too light, it succeeds in creating an atmospheric tone, while an inspired touch of sound design from John Leonard sees a constant use of background noise off stage.
There is one element to 4000 Miles which was sadly less successful than the others, however. That is in the direction. While Richard Eyre’s direction works in places, some of the choices feel misjudged at best and baffling at worst and only succeed to lose the momentum from the play. This is none the more apparent than in the scene changes which are too frequent and too long creating a constant stop/start nature to the play. Witnessing stage hands make the most minor of changes to the et feels unnecessary and takes the audience stagehandsmoment. While of course it may be necessary for the actors to change outfits, you get the sense this could have been executed in a different way. In its current form, it feels problematic and disappointingly lessened the impact of some of the shows most powerful moments.
Ultimately, 4000 Miles is a beautiful play boasting gorgeous and sentimental writing elevated by stunning performances from its two sensational lead actors. What should be an overall winner of a play is somewhat undone thanks to some confused and clunky direction. However, this doesn’t take away from the heart of the show which still effortlessly transcends beyond the stage. I may not have quite travelled 4000 Miles on my journey to Chichester to catch this production but it was more than worth the trip.
4000 Miles plays at the Minerva, Chichester Festival Theatre until 10th June. Tickets https://www.cft.org.uk/events/4000-miles
Photos by Manuel Harlan