This is Living began life in 2012 as a seven-minute piece about a woman saying goodbye to her husband after her death. Now developed into a full-length play, Liam Borrett’s debut is a powerful, harrowing story that leaves its audience feeling emotionally battered and yet at the same time, oddly uplifted.
Michael (Michael Socha) and Alice (Tamla Kari) are a normal couple, who’ve been together for six years and have a three-year-old daughter. There’s just one problem: hours before the opening scene of the play, Alice drowned in a tragic accident. This, it turns out, is just as difficult for her to comprehend as it is for her bereaved and shell-shocked husband, and as time ticks down to the morning of her funeral, the two struggle together to make sense of what’s happened and to say their goodbyes.
In case that all sounds a bit too grim (and at times it really is; there are moments when the pain coming off the stage is so intense it’s almost physical), we’re also taken on a journey back in time through a series of flashbacks – effectively signposted by Jackie Shemesh’s lighting design – to significant moments in Michael and Alice’s relationship. And though some of these are scarcely less traumatic, others offer some much-needed light relief for both the audience and the actors.
It’s in these moments that we truly get to know and like the characters, whose very different personalities somehow make them a perfect pair. And yet even as we’re laughing at the awkwardness of the couple’s first date, we have a constant reminder of what’s coming up later in the story, thanks to Sarah Beaton’s set: a shallow black pool of water and mud in which both Michael and Alice grow increasingly wet and dishevelled.
Liam Borrett’s script seamlessly weaves past and present together, switching without warning from comedy to tragedy and back again, and demanding from its actors a vast and versatile emotional range. Fortunately, both Michael Socha – making an impressive West End debut – and Tamla Kari are more than up to the challenge, and utterly convincing in both grief and joy. Kari in particular shines, especially in the moments she’s alone on stage and wordlessly demonstrating her pain; the closing moments of Act 1 are among the most powerful in the whole play.
In addition to being an emotional rollercoaster, This is Living is also a gripping tale that keeps us guessing right to the end. Not only must we wait to find out exactly what happened to Alice, but there are hints throughout that all may not be quite as it seems, and the end of Act 1 only throws up more questions. This leaves Act 2 with a lot of work to do, but any fears we might leave unsatisfied prove unfounded. The final scene feels oddly tacked on, suddenly revealing a bit of the set we’ve never seen before – but it finishes the play off perfectly, simultaneously clearing up any remaining questions and introducing a faint note of hope to what might otherwise have been a pretty traumatic evening.
This is Living is a powerful debut from Liam Borrett, sensitively exploring a topic nobody really wants to think about. Emotionally bruising it may be, but it’s also a compelling and beautiful love story, which draws us in and keeps us gripped throughout.
This is Living is at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 11th June.