The second of four plays to feature in The Space’s Foreword Festival – an annual project supporting first-time writers in bringing their work to the stage – the darkly humorous Mycorrhiza marks a strong writing debut from Luke Stapleton. Directed by Sepi Baghaei, the two-hander flits between past and present as thirteen-year-old school friends Dean (Scott Afton) and Alicia (Corrina Buchan) spend the night hiding out on a remote Scottish island, and then return six years later – in somewhat odd circumstances – as very different people. In both cases, secrets are shared and support offered, with the play particularly highlighting the way gender expectations shape each character’s way of dealing with their own trauma.
The play takes its unusual name from a symbiotic association between fungi and plants which, quietly and without fuss, ensures both have what they need to survive. This becomes a metaphor for friendship, and the reasonable expectation that even when we feel most alone, someone will be there to offer the help and support we need. The relationship between Dean and Alicia is well developed; unglamorous, often immature, and littered with mistakes, it nonetheless always feels believable. Much of the credit for this must go to two excellent performances from Corrina Buchan and Scott Afton, who confidently negotiate the script’s many twists and turns, and somehow make these two very different characters feel like a natural fit.
Ultimately, the friends are united by the pain caused by deep personal trauma – but while Alicia sees nothing wrong in reaching out to her friend for help, Dean can’t bring himself to do the same when the tables are turned, despite having gone to extreme lengths to have her there. Suddenly, all the earlier “harmless” jokes about his manhood and slim stature take on a much darker significance as he struggles to open up, even to the person he trusts the most. (Nor does it help that each time he tries to assert his masculinity, he’s easily overpowered – both physically and intellectually – by his more dominant friend.)
Taking us back and forth in time works well as a narrative device, teasing out the story a little at a time, but it proves to be a bit of an issue when it comes to staging. The need to visually differentiate between past and present results in several lengthy blackouts while the actors hastily clear the stage – tent and all – and set up for the next scene. This is all very efficiently done, but it does mean regular significant interruptions to the flow of a play that otherwise holds the audience’s attention with ease. That said, the production does successfully capture the wildness and isolation of the island, with Vanessa Morton’s lighting design particularly effective as it follows the passing hours, and day becomes night becomes day again.
Mycorrhiza takes a little-known natural phenomenon and applies it to a situation we can all relate to. As thirteen-year-olds, Dean and Alicia struggle to get their heads around the strange word their teacher mentioned in class, or to fully grasp the scientific details – but they instinctively understand that it’s a perfect metaphor for their own imperfect but enduring connection. The play ventures into some dark territory, but ultimately the feeling of connection it leaves you with is both reassuring and uplifting. This compelling drama is a promising debut, and promises good things to come from Luke Stapleton.
For more details about the Foreword Festival or to support the project, visit their Kickstarter.