A study of the nature of artistic obsession, Sweep Up The Stars is a cleverly-constructed play with a thoughtful, intelligent plot. It tackles a slew of universal issues – loneliness, self-absorption, self-awareness, depression – yet approaches them through the life-story of a single man, who proves both eminently likeable and deeply flawed. A neat concept, compelling acting and a bittersweet script all combine to make a highly watchable production.
The gimmick underpinning Patrick Robertson’s brand-new play is both simple and fruitful. We’re at a meet-the-author event – across town at the Book Festival maybe – and a fifty-something writer called William is preparing to hold forth on his magnum opus, the titular Sweep Up The Stars. But soon we’re interrupted by an enthusiastic young boy; it’s William again, visiting from the past, and meeting his older self face-to-face for the first time. As the boy grows to adulthood, the encounters continue, and the two Williams grow to understand each other’s different perspectives on the life they share.
Along the way, the older author recreates scenes from his past – or his younger self’s future – both to explore recent traumas, and to offer clues about what lies ahead. While William’s life story is revealed in gradual stages, we know that it’s building towards a pre-ordained conclusion: the publication of the literary masterpiece that we’ve gathered to hear about. But there’s a studied ambiguity about whether this is really happening. Perhaps it’s all in the young author’s imagination, or even the old man’s memories. Any of those explanations fit the plot, and you’re free to choose whichever one best resonates with you.
Both actors are strong. Jacob Ward has a nice air of amused detachment as he addresses his younger self, but is poignantly needy when he’s drafted in to play his despairing, broken dad. James Heaford, meanwhile, visibly matures as play goes on, and is equally convincing as boy and a middle-aged author struggling to find his voice in a garret room. Direction is simple and sure, and both actors elegantly switch between characters by donning and removing clothes – a device which serves to maintain perfect clarity, but isn’t taken so literally as to annoy.
There’s plenty of humour throughout the play, including some respectful visual comedy when Ward is called on to impersonate female characters. But the script does drag on a little too long; the hour-and-twenty running time is excessive for what’s a fairly simple plot. And the twist at the end is perhaps not twisty enough. It concludes on a genuine surprise which leads to a pertinent life-affirming message, but a part of me still thought… is that it?
So this is an understated production – very deliberately so – and perhaps it carries that quietness to a fault. But when it works well, it’s both absorbing and poignant; a reflection on the mistakes we all make in life, and the fact that chasing one dream means turning your back on another. The sub-plot involving William’s father is deeply affecting too. All in all, it’s well worth sweeping up a ticket.