By Siavash Minoukadeh, Entertainment Subeditor
Spotlights presents Torchlight; a play of love, loss and change. Ben Nunan’s Torchlight is a play that doesn’t want to play by the rules of your typical student show.
With student theatre, and student-written plays in particular, we go in expecting to watch something smaller in scale, something less ambitious, than a professional production. Grading student shows on a curve like this makes sense: the actors have less time to rehearse, the crew are working on a smaller budget and everyone is less experienced. But Ben Nunan’s Torchlight is a play that doesn’t want to play by these rules.
What Torchlight sets out to be is something far more ambitious than a standard student play. There is no central protagonist around whom everything plays out who the audience can easily judge. Instead, the play follows a family, each character weaving their own relationships, worries and history into a complex tableau of loss and love. Oh, and there are interludes written in verse thrown in for good measure.
In short, it’s a bold concept and one which needs a cast who all pull their weight. Not having a central figure makes it hard for any one actor to stand out and the play’s energy is controlled by the whole ensemble. Thankfully, there are some captivating performances to be had. Bobby Busvine is compelling as the fragile Lesley, torn between her family and her abusive boyfriend in the wake of her mother’s death. On the lighter side, Ben Wheeler brings a delightful burst of energy and comic relief to the action as Rosaline’s goofy boyfriend Stewart.
But for a show that relies so heavily on the whole group, the relationships between the actors matter as much as individual performances. Rosaline (Kitty Daniels) and Lesley share an ease and honesty with each other befitting the fact they are siblings whilst Joe Watt and Cecily Thomas have a natural comic chemistry as Stewart’s parents. It’s clear that the cast have a rapport with each other that comes across onstage for the most part.
As tensions grow and relationships fray, the space thins out to reflect this. The battered-but-functional set starts as a homely living room but by the end, the small space of the Pegg Theatre feels absolutely barren, save for the ghostly fault line on the floor. It’s clever, and the set seems to always be changing, with actors moving set around. While it keeps the space dynamic, all this movement does also require a fair few scene changes. Despite being a practical necessity, the set changes do break up the action and the cast have to work hard to keep the audience immersed in the world of the play.
To return to the plot itself, well it touches on a lot of issues, a lot of intense, sensitive issues. Seeing Joe Marshall’s Julian work his way into Lesley’s life lie by lie makes for uncomfortable watching. And yet, it’s compelling. Depictions of emotional abuse have a tendency to stray into gratuity but Torchlight avoids that while still feeling real, at times uncomfortably so.
Everyone involved has made an absolutely admirable attempt at bringing such a vibrant, original concept onto a student stage
Another key plot point is how the sisters have responded to the death of their mother. Here, I am admittedly probably going to be a harsher critic than most in this regard having lost a parent myself recently. I was prepared to walk out of Torchlight an emotional wreck but I didn’t find myself moved by the portrayal of loss, despite some the subtle working in of rhyme and metre into the lines about loss. Grief is as much about the everyday, the unexpected reminders of someone’s exit from a space, as it is about the grand poetry of life and death, and without those little things, it was difficult to grasp the bigger message being made.
I said Torchlight was ambitious for a student play and it is. I’m glad it is. We need much more theatre that forges its own path and takes risks with structure and language because if I have to sit through another play about students cracking jokes about drugs and sex I will lose what little is left of my mind. It’s no mean feat for a writer or director to take on something of such a grand scale and it's clear that everyone in the cast and production team have devoted themselves to the project with a passion.
With more time to iron out some kinks and develop aspects of the show, more space to bring the script to life, more of everything a professional theatre budget affords a company, the potential is there for Torchlight to come into its own as a gorgeous ensemble family drama. As it stands, everyone involved has made an absolutely admirable attempt at bringing such a vibrant, original concept onto a student stage.
Featured image credit: Lawrence Pettifer
Did you see Torchlight? What did you think of the show?