Review by Harriet Purbrick
Harry Daisley’s original play explores how love and shame in a gay relationship manifest in the 1970s and ‘80s. In just one seventy-minute act, Daisley seamlessly integrates this with further themes: the unrelenting passage of time and the way we use storytelling to process and make sense of life’s unfairness.
The stage design (overseen by Saffy Wehren) featured several nods to the 1980s where the majority of the action takes place: The Human League vinyl record, typewriters, even the furniture itself. This subtle approach was reflected in the costume design – more Doc Martens and turtle necks than fluorescent leg warmers. What particularly stood out was the emphasis on the lost art of letter-writing. Red envelopes individually suspended above the stage represent the significance of the letter Solomon writes to Atlanta, and Atlanta’s hope to rekindle an old flame.
Unlike other contemporary media set in the ‘80s, the decade wasn’t romanticised – rather, it was presented as the devastating time when the AIDS epidemic was destroying LGBTQ+ communities, made worse only by society’s further stigmatisation of queerness. The only real nostalgia was Atlanta’s: for his summer tryst with Solomon in 1974. The use of a screen and lighting to create silhouettes not only enhanced the narrator’s description of events of this summer but also created a poignant sense of distance between the besotted Solomon and Atlanta of then and the horrific reality only a decade later. Even so, as the directors (Daisley, assisted by Izzy Bates and shadowed by Misia Kozanecka) opted not to show any gay affection in front of the screen, the screen became a metaphorical representation of their self-censored, clandestine relationship.
The casting was particularly impressive as Atlanta (Matthew Dangerfield) bore a resemblance in height and hairstyle to the narrator/storyteller (Evan Harris) – it was believable that the narrator was an older version of Atlanta. And although Solomon (Morgan King) didn’t appear in front of the screen until at least half way through the play, his poise brought dignity to Solomon and the difficult task of revealing the traumatic twist.
Special mention has to go to Maddy Swindells who single-handedly played all four female characters. This unfortunately led to some confusion when Atlanta accidentally called his close friend Tracy, the name of the woman, (also played by Swindells) Atlanta was going to meet in the following scene.
By choosing to have the narrator as on-stage character, Harris was able beautifully deliver Daisley’s lines not just through voice, but through facial expressions and movement as well. Moreover, the narrator interacted with the characters and the set, creating a real sense of synergy, and raising further questions about time as a concept. Where the play struggled, however, was in unevenness of the narrator’s involvement. At points, they interjected so quickly after a character delivered their lines that Atlanta’s thoughts and feelings were explained too literally and too fully - overlooking Dangerfield’s ability to express this himself and the audience’s capacity to read between the lines. Yet when we saw the narrator passively listening to the dialogue, it was unclear what role they were playing; I would like to have seen more emphasis placed on how telling the story of Solomon and Atlanta emotionally impacted the narrator, as we only get a glimpse of this devastation as the narrator utters the final monologue.
Overall, Solomon and Atlanta is an earnest and emotional piece of theatre, and perhaps the best original student play I have seen for its creative production and balance of so many themes. Although they only had a few weeks to rehearse, the cast and production team brilliantly executed Daisley’s ambitious script, leading to many theatre-goers leaving with tears in their eyes.