This short and deceptively gentle play, penned by Scottish icon David Greig, opens with the most familiar of human stories: a nervous man leading an attractive woman into his sparsely-furnished flat. Before long, we learn two things: firstly that she’s picked him up, and secondly that she’s Norwegian. As Scotsman Sean bumbles around his living room, searching for something – anything! – to make his surprise guest feel at home, Lisa shares memories of her homeland… memories that have an intriguing resonance for her reserved but likeable companion.
It takes a brave reviewer to criticise the rightly-feted Greig, but his script did leave me wanting to scream – as Sean, at one point, does – “Will you just stop it with the Norway?” Or, more precisely, with the sweeping generalisations about Norwegians; you don’t have to have actually been to Trondheim to know that its society can’t be as homogenised as Lisa claims. I’m sure there’s something intentional here, an idealistic homesickness on Lisa’s part maybe, but my creeping irritation at her one-note naivety was enough to impinge on my enjoyment of the play.
But never mind, because there’s plenty there to enjoy. Notwithstanding all the Norway, Greig’s naturalistic dialogue is full of nervy charm, and actor Tom Hurley cuts a loveable figure as Sean – way too anxious to please his unexpected visitor, and visibly terrified when she makes it clear she has more than just a nightcap in mind. Hurley’s speech is low-key but his eyes are wonderfully expressive, and he carries the piece successfully through the boy-meets-girl awkwardness of the opening.
As Lisa, Sarah Bennington has to wait for an opportunity to shine, but her turn comes when Greig’s language turns poetic and evokes a Norwegian winter. There are delicate motifs here, of darkness and stillness and snow, and Bennington perfectly captures the barely-perceptible sense of otherness that defines Lisa’s character. In Lisa’s mind at least, Norway is a place of companionship and infinite calmness – with the six-month nights she grew up with offering a metaphorical contrast to the daily bustle of Sean’s native Scotland.
It’s all very gentle, quietly funny, and comfortingly sweet. But there’s a core of bleakness to Greig’s writing as well: something not quite right inside Sean’s mind, something he’s trying to warn her about. Under Lisa’s insistent and sometimes callous questioning, we get slowly closer to the truth – and while the humour continues even at the business end of the script, it’s accompanied by a mounting sense of unease. How risky might it be to spend a night with Sean? Or is the danger he hints at an illusory one, a product of his own guilt and unquiet mind?
Either way, when Lisa says that Norwegians know how to live with the dark, it’s clearly not just the Arctic winter she’s referring to. So you hope it’ll end well for this endearing couple, who start off seeming so mismatched – yet by the end, feel like they’ve been searching for each other all their lives. Subtly directed by Peter Scott and performed with heart by two impressively engaging actors, Axon Theatre’s production does full justice to Greig’s seemingly simple but multi-layered script.