Beautifully written and emotionally devastating, Cordelia O’Neill’s two-hander Anything Is Possible If You Think About It Hard Enough sensitively explores the impact of losing a child to stillbirth for a young couple, Rupert (Huw Parmenter) and Alex (Gemma Lawrence). And while the loss of a baby is an incredibly difficult thing to really understand if you haven’t been through it, the play does an exquisite job of verbalising the experience in a way that at least allows us to empathise.
Despite the subject matter, the first half of the production is frequently laugh out loud funny as it charts the blossoming relationship between two very different personalities: Rupert is a former asthmatic who works in finance, loves his mum, and swears by a life of routine and careful planning, while Alex is a free spirit and a smoker, with complicated family relationships, who always says exactly what she thinks – even when she probably shouldn’t. On paper they make no sense at all… but a romance blossoms, a life begins, and suddenly they’re deciding what colour to paint the nursery.
Then, around halfway through the play’s 90-minute run time, their baby dies. And even though we know it’s coming, it lands like a hammer blow, such is the skill of writer Cordelia O’Neill, who’s given us just long enough to get to know Rupert and Alex and share in their excitement, and director Kate Budgen, who punctuates the horrifying pivotal scene with a long moment of silence and stillness, allowing us time to process the enormity of what’s just happened.
From here, everything that was amusing about Alex and Rupert’s quirky relationship comes back around, but in a very different way. His habit of avoiding difficult conversations, her tendency to slip into fantasy; his need to be the responsible adult, her messed up relationship with her parents. While before these were minor obstacles to be laughed off, suddenly they seem like mountains as Alex and Rupert struggle, alone and in their own way, to recover from their shared tragedy. Where before their conversations flowed easily and rapidly, now the silences between them carry far more weight, and when they do try to communicate there’s an awkwardness that we never felt before.
From the start, the performances from Gemma Lawrence and Huw Parmenter are absolutely on the money, and despite the oddness of the pairing, there’s never a single moment where we don’t believe or feel invested in either the characters or their relationship. And when everything falls apart, both actors make the transition from comedy to tragedy seamlessly, effortlessly breaking our hearts where five minutes before they had us crying with laughter.
So fair warning, this is a very sad play that deals with an incredibly difficult subject. But it’s also an excellent production, with direction and performances that thoughtfully bring a perfectly written script to life. Highly recommended.
Anything Is Possible If You Think About It Hard Enough is at Southwark Playhouse until 9th October.