Review by Sam Waite
Having already been a major success with critics at this years Edinburgh Fringe,We Were Promised Honey finds a London home Upstairs at the Soho Theatre. The space is well-used from the get-go, leading into a unique experience.
We, the audience, sit in three rows either side of the performance space. We awkwardly avoid eye contact with what begins to feel like a wall of strangers until a voice from among us begins to speak. With that begins We Were Promised Honey, a performance piece by writer and performer Sam Ward, who will be our guide through a pair of stories somehow both simple and decidedly complex.
Ward begins with the opening of a story in the past tense – on August 10th, 2018, Richard Russell commandeered an empty plane and soon found he wasn't certain of how to land. Fixing his eyes on members of his audience as he speaks, Sam informs us that we will be taken through the story of this very audience – without giving anything away, this is when the moments of audience participation begin, with a fun moment with a “random” attendee, cued by his winking as he approaches them.
This is the first moment where the genre and medium-straddling effect of Ward’s piece becomes clear. At times this is a one-man play about the futility of life as we live it, at others a comedic monologue about human behaviour. In the sections where a volunteer is called on, the evening morphs seamlessly into a blend of improvisational performance and interactive storytelling – I found myself drawn to volunteer and was soon overjoyed at sharing the space and energy with Ward, while feeling deeply affected by the sharp edges of the narrative he walked me, sometimes literally, through.
With no set and only a handful of props accompanied by David Doyle (lighting) and Carmel Smickersgill’s (sound) design elements to help create his imagined scenes, Sam Ward both as playwright and performer never fails to engage his audience. It's a particularly impressive feat to believably convey an emotional journey without a “character” to connect them to, as Sam is simply performing as himself while keeping the narratives of the evening moving. When he tells us what will happen to those among us minutes after the show, years after the show, even millennia after the show has ended, he maintains an energy that makes the brisk, one hour play feel as if it’s flying by even faster.
The stories themselves, often interwoven but rarely truly connected, all have genuine emotional impact and even elicit a fair amount of laughter. During my brief time on stage, I was taken back by the ability of both the material and its creator to make me feel at once at ease and on edge, and to smile at his humour while moved by the depth of what was, in that moment, my story. A highlight of the evening involves two audience members reading a scene, the content of which I won't spoil, and the unrehearsed nature of the reading allows the nuance and power of the words themselves to shine through.
The past-tense story of Richard Russell preparing to land his stolen plane acts as a framing decide of sorts – in-between the future stories of whichever among us raised our hands to say, “I would like to know what happens next,” we are given more of Richard’s tale. Despite how disparate it might sound, this is always a welcome detour and feels completely at home among the other tangents, keeping the evening’s blend of humour and tragedy at the forefront. In bringing together the stories of Richard, myself, and the others who were called upon to add to the stories, you can't help but feel that a deep understanding of the human condition has fuelled every second of the evening.
My only gripe with this show is how little I can say about it. Running as short as it does and with so much of the content either relatively fresh depending on the audience themselves or something to be experienced for yourself that writing down could never do justice… I just can't find anything more to add that would feel appropriate or wouldn't impact the effectiveness of this spectacular piece of work. This is a play, a one-man show, a stand-up routine, and an improv piece all at once, and I for one hope it has as grand a future as it imagined for us.
We Were Promised Honey plays at Soho Theatre until 3rd December 2022. Tickets from https://sohotheatre.com/shows/we-were-promised-honey/
Photos by David Doyle