Review by Harry Bower
Three pairings, all called Emile and Emily, all with completely different personalities and stories. It sounds like an interesting premise and is billed as an experimental piece of new theatre, presented by writers Mojola Akinyemi, Nurit Chinn and Philippa Lawford as part of Tightrope Theatre. Despite being relatively new on the scene Tightrope have some strong success to their name including the acclaimed Ikaria, which was runner up for the Ambassador Theatre Group Playwrights’ Prize in 2022.
Some pedigree then, which bodes well for their latest offering, Emile and Emily. But does it live up to that reputation? The answer to that question is complicated and can probably be summed up with two words: “not fully”.
Told in the form of three twenty-minute acts we meet three contrasting pairs. The first are young professionals living in the city, flat sharing having met at University. It’s 3am and having returned from a house party the pair start chewing the fat. To begin with there are suggestions of a lingering romantic tension in the air though this is quickly extinguished when the conversation turns to class and privilege – each having a strong opinion on the upbringing of the other. Who is to blame for Emile’s feelings of inadequacy and judgement on behalf of his upbringing, and should Emily have to feel bad about growing up in a well-off family and benefiting from nepotism in her early career?
These are relatively complex questions addressed in a short section of dialogue which could never do the topic any real justice, though there is some merit to framing it with University graduates; often the reality is that these conversations are had when drunk at 3am when young people are trying to figure out the answers to big questions.
Isaiah St Jean plays Emile in this first section with an emotional insecurity and vulnerability which is palpable, and his is one of the strongest performances in the piece, particularly as the book is at its least smooth in this section. Francesca Eldred’s Emily is articulate but comes across condescending and takes a while to warm up. Just as the pair seem to hit their stride, their section of the play is over and they leave the stage.
They are replaced by a completely different pairing with no relation to the prior – another Emile and Emily, this time portrayed as flight attendants on a long-haul flight. Sitting next to each other, David Matthews as Emile and Molly Monkton as Emily spend their breaks chatting about their lives and over-sharing, as lots of us have a tendency to do at work. It’s this pairing which provides the most genuine laughter in the show. Monkton is positively outrageous in her comic timing and shines here, and Matthews as her opposite does a fine job of portraying a nervous square uncomfortable at first by the interaction he finds himself engulfed in.
Together they discuss love and sex, the difference in their personalities, a fear of flying on Emily’s part, and an impending terminal illness on Emile’s. It’s an odd interaction which despite some great performances doesn’t really mean anything or go anywhere. The conversations are peppered with interruptions in the form of the classic ‘bing bong’ of an aeroplane seatbelt light and a change in lighting, but these are too frequent to be complimentary and only serve to jolt the audience out of their focus.
In the third pairing we see yet another Emile and Emily pairing, this time Emile played as the ex-lover of Emily’s dead brother. The setting change is California and Emile has swung by for the funeral and to say goodbye before he travels the States. Their interaction is probably the strongest and most intriguing of the piece but simultaneously it is the most dry. Though there is a lingering chemistry between Adam Mirsky and Sarah Hazemi and each deliver admirable attempts at creating depth to their characters, the narrative and plot twists don’t aid them in their efforts. Ultimately it is three out of three for somewhat confusing and awkward interactions.
I really struggled to understand the point of these three tales. I kept asking myself, is there something I am missing here in terms of the link between the three? I noticed each pairing made reference to ‘someone else’ called Emile, and in each act there was a fly or an eyelash on Emile’s clothing. But as far as I can tell those are the only sort-of linear connections between the three, and I still have no idea what the relevance of them is.
Maybe it’s not about connecting the three, and maybe it’s about as the blurb says, ‘limitless potential of language’ and ‘a dizzying exploration of possibility’. Unfortunately I just felt dizzy by the end, confused and unsure about what I’d just witnessed. I didn’t notice anything spectacular about the use of language, though the dialogue was well crafted, at times. The direction and movement was solid too, and the performances by the individual actors ranged from pretty good to excellent.
At times it felt like I was watching three separate beginnings to three separate work in progress shows, or as a friend of mine put it – the visualisation of three separate Facebook Messenger conversations between distant friends who only see each other now and again. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but because of the character names being the same and the intimation that there should be some sort of thread between the three stories, or some way to link them beyond the names, I left the show underwhelmed and feeling as though I’d not been on anywhere near the same wavelength as the writers.
If this is piece of theatre which is being presented as complete, then it is asking a huge amount of its audience to connect dots and make leaps of faith in its writing which are not rewarded. If it is a work in progress (which it was not advertised as being), then dialogue-wise it is a robust start but narrative-wise requires more direction and focus.
It's always possible that I may be the exception to the rule though and I would encourage anyone reading this review to check out Emile and Emily and judge it for yourself.
Emile and Emily plays at VAULT Festival until 26 February 2023. Find out more: https://vaultfestival.com/events/emile-and-emily/. For future information about the show and where it may play next, visit https://twitter.com/Tightrope_T.