Peter Taylor’s River in the Sky was never going to be an easy watch. The story deals with a couple coming to terms with the death of their newborn baby, so it’s no surprise that the play ventures into some dark territory, or that it leaves its audience feeling somewhat fragile. Just as much as the emotional impact, though, it’s the unique and original approach to the subject matter that makes this debut production from Turn Point Theatre particularly memorable.
Ellie (Lindsey Cross) and Jack (Howard Horner) are planning their future, and grappling with an important question: should they have one baby, or two, or three (definitely not four)? In their excitement and optimism, it never occurs to them that the decision could be taken out of their hands. Some time later, Ellie’s fled to a caravan by the sea, Jack’s trying to get on with his life, and it’s obvious that neither of them is coping with the grief of losing their son. Instead, they take refuge in tea, biscuits and storytelling – but while the vivid tales they share start out as an escape from real life, increasingly they come to offer a kind of healing.
And it’s for this reason that while there are parts of the play that are heartbreakingly painful to watch, ultimately River in the Sky is a story of hope. By allowing us to meet Jack and Ellie – albeit briefly – before tragedy strikes, Taylor establishes how much both the individuals and their relationship have been changed by what’s happened in the intervening years. Where once there was playfulness and humour, now there’s awkward small talk and repressed anger. And yet even in the midst of their grief, there are glimpses of the couple we remember from that brief opening scene and the reassuring knowledge that those people, while they may be irrevocably changed, do somehow still exist.
If the storytelling aspect of the play is what makes it unique, it’s also where the production really comes alive. The set is simple – just some simple wooden blocks in the centre of the stage – but between Taylor’s evocative writing and direction, and vibrant performances from Lindsey Cross and Howard Horner, we find ourselves transported to a dangerous but beautiful world of monsters and magical creatures, where the key to survival is to be brave and fight, even if the struggle seems hopeless. By contrast, the couple’s reclusive real-world existence seems even more empty and colourless.
In the end, then, River in the Sky is not so much a story about grief as it is of a couple finding their own way out of it, and – perhaps – back to each other. Taylor doesn’t try to offer easy answers or neat conclusions; there’s no suggestion that Jack and Ellie’s journey is over by the end of the play, but we do feel that they’ve taken a step in the right direction. A thoughtful and quietly moving production, the play appears to set out on a well-worn path, but then strikes out on its own – and in doing so makes the powerful point that there is no one, or correct, way of dealing with tragedy.
River in the Sky is at The Hope Theatre until 24th August.