What type of twenty-something man wears a superhero costume to a party? That’s the question Heather asks a friend on the phone, blissfully unaware that James – still dressed as Spiderman – is sleeping off the night’s excesses on her floor. James’s reluctance to grow up puts a strain on his burgeoning relationship with Heather; but when we finally meet his father Harry, we learn he hasn’t had the smoothest of paths into adulthood. As time goes on the pressures of life begin to tell on all three characters, and Harry’s treasured pen collection – symbolising the memories of a lifetime – plays an unexpectedly pivotal role.
Between Heather’s focus on motherhood and James’s penchant for online games, these characters aren’t exactly subtly drawn. But perhaps it’s best that way: if nothing else, the comfortable patterns de-emphasise the specifics, throwing the focus on some important themes. Most obvious of these is the transition from adolescence to maturity, where James’s childish love of superheroes chimes with a heartbreaking memory of his immature response to teenage tragedy. There are lessons about the importance of confronting reality as well – and the task of maintaining dad’s precious pen collection is a nice metaphor for the way that relationships, if left unattended, dry up too.
But there's one card playwright Jeremy Fletcher plays close to his chest, and when he finally reveals it – in the last few minutes of the play – your understanding of those relationships is transformed. It's a clever trick, and the crux scene is commendably subtly done. The problem is that, until the pieces fall into place, all the characters seem vaguely dislikeable: Harry and Heather are ungrateful and demanding, while James just seems evasive and weak. Intellectually I now understand why those first impressions were wrong, but emotionally the revelations came too late for me to reconnect with the characters.
For the plot to make sense, there must also be a couple of years’ gap between some of scenes; I don't think this is supposed to be concealed, but I still didn’t quite realise it had happened. And there’s a half-formed theme of rationalism and superstition running through the play, which pops up often enough to be noticeable but not enough to really go anywhere. That could safely give way, I think, to a more comprehensive exploration of Heather’s own past grief, which currently plays something of a secondary role to the male characters’ travails.
Actor Toby Vaughan does make an engaging figure out of James, bringing sensitivity to the boy-becomes-man storyline, while Gareth Watkins has moments of poignancy as Harry. Olivia Elsden perhaps has less to work with in the script, but her indulgent acceptance of Harry is an early highlight. There are lots of nice details to the production too, including an unobtrusive but evocative sound design and the clever use of a simple set. All in all then, Communicate doesn’t feel like quite the finished product yet – but the ideas here are piquant, and well worth taking on.