Review by Rosie Holmes
Winner of 2022 Ambassador Theatre Group Playwight’s prize, Graceland is a brand-new one-woman show currently playing at The Royal Court Theatre. Written by Ava Wong Davies the show explores the souring of a modern romance in a monologue delivered by Sabrina Wu.
The beginning of the play starts with what sounds like a meet-cute, an all too familiar one at that. Nina meets Gabriel, a wealthy white poet, at an overly optimistic early spring BBQ in Tooting, held by mutual friends. From here Nina details the development of their relationship- they go for dinner, (only after she has internet stalked him and his ex-girlfriend of course) meet each other’s families and move in together.
The piece is cleverly written, and we see their relationship become quietly coercive and controlling. As wealthy Gabriel, bankrolled by his family slowly starts dropping money into Nina’s account, mocking her friends and labelling her lazy, a whole parade of red flags begin to line up. The relationship slowly becomes more poisonous and toxic. We see Wu’s Sabrina desperately clinging onto the love she experienced at the beginning of the relationship and even questions whether Gabriel’s behaviour is just borne out of his love for her. It’s a clever portrait of a souring relationship and controlling behaviour, a topic that is important to be explored.
There is no doubt Ava Wong Davies is a wonderfully accomplished writer, there is a lyricism to her words that conjure up perfectly the images she is trying to convey. A brief account of Nina’s childhood is rich in its descriptions and the breadth of detailed observations mean we are easily able to imagine her childhood, growing up in a Chinese restaurant, then as an adolescent smoking cigarettes under an orange light at the back of the restaurant. This continues throughout the play as Wong Davies’ detailed observations showcase how skilled of a writer she is as she creates a remarkably relatable portrait of a modern relationship.
That being said, the writing feels more suited to a novel than a play and the lengthy descriptions feel rather juxtaposed to the set and staging we see before us. The writing feels a bit too wordy in some cases and makes the play maybe 10 minutes longer than it ought to be. I found myself, at points, impatient, waiting for the for the action to begin. Wong’s lyrical descriptions feel like they would be better suited to the page as do the many subtleties and inferences we are asked to make when it comes to Nina and Gabriel’s relationship. Whilst not explicitly labelling the relationship as abusive, or an uncomfortable sexual experience as rape works powerfully in some cases, in many there is perhaps too much left to interpretation.
Wong Davies herself states that the play is about a woman who loses herself and finds herself again, this would point towards there being a satisfying conclusion. However, the ending seemed to be both 10 minutes too late, yet also appearing out of nowhere. I was still unsure exactly how I was meant to feel, perhaps due to the too many inferences and subtleties included in Wong’s writings. As Nina’s friend asks at the end ‘can you report him?’ it feels as though we have maybe missed the most poisonous and destructive aspects of Gabriel’s behaviour. That’s not to demean the coerciveness we have seen; this is absolutely controlling behaviour and shouldn’t be taken lightly, but it does feel that again too many aspects of Nina and Gabriel’s relationship have been left to audience interpretation.
Sabrina Wu takes on the role of Nina. Having missed the two preview nights just days ago due to illness, she shines, providing an accomplished and nuanced performance. Dealing with tricky staging and an incredibly wordy monologue it is clear Wu understands Wong Davies’ writing. It’s always impressive to me when a performer in one-person show is able to captivate the audience in such an enthralling way as Wu does.
The action here takes place in the centre of a traverse staging set-up. Wu therefore has the tricky job of playing to both sides. This results in a loss of drama and emotion. During the most dramatic and emotive section of the piece Wu has her back towards one half of the audience and thus losing much of its power.
The set is comprised itself of a cheap looking bed, surrounded by mounds of dirt. Wu begins the piece clean and stays upon the centre of the stage away from the dirt. Yet as the piece goes on, and hers and Gabriel’s relationship becomes muddied, so too does she. It’s a good idea and definitely provides this one-woman show with movement, but I can’t help feel the metaphor here is too literal. Against Wong Davies’ beautiful descriptions the staging feels rather awkward. The dramatic smokiness that envelops the set towards the end feels too dramatized against the subtleties of her writing and undermines her carefully crafted words. That being said, Jai Morjaria’s lighting design is effective as the expanse of sky above the stage changes colour along with the mood.
Wong Davies has created a beautifully written one-woman show, one that explores the gradual souring of a relationship and the impact of coercive behaviour. Whilst the set felt a little awkward, the collaboration of Wu’s performance and Wong Davies’ writing is not. Whilst potentially a little too long and sometimes too ambiguous this piece explores important topics with nuance and sensitivity.
Graceland plays at Royal Court until 11th March. Tickets from https://royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/graceland/
Photos by Ali Wright