A short play with a lot to talk about, Madeleine George’s Precious Little places language and communication under the microscope. Brodie (Jenny Delisle) is a linguistics researcher who’s expecting her first child, but when the amniocentesis test reveals there might be a problem, she’s faced with a difficult choice. Her much younger girlfriend Dre (Jessica Kinsey) – who can’t understand why Brodie, now 42, wants a baby in the first place – offers little comfort, so Brodie looks for answers from two unlikely sources: Cleva, an elderly research subject whose language is on the verge of dying out, and the Ape, a famous talking gorilla at the local zoo (both Deborah Maclaren).
The various elements of the story at first don’t seem to quite knit together and the end comes as a bit of a surprise, offering the audience little in the way of closure. But when you look back on it, language is the constant in every encounter within the play – whether it’s the gabbling tourists from whom 100 words carry less value than the Ape’s dignified silence, or the unfortunate choice of language from Brodie’s well-meaning doctor, which immediately put her on the defensive. Cleva’s revival of a language she hasn’t spoken for years brings back memories of another life, to the alarm of her overprotective daughter, and Brodie’s choice boils down to a simple question: can she live with a child who might not have the ability to communicate?
Under the direction of Kate Bannister, all three actors give excellent performances. As Brodie, Jenny Delisle succeeds in the difficult job of turning a woman who often seems cold, scientific and verging on arrogant into a sympathetic character whose dilemma the audience can sympathise with. Jessica Kinsey gives a masterclass in multi-roling, playing no less than five characters (many more if you count each of the zoogoers separately), each of them with a lot of lines – if not always a huge amount to say. This abundance of roles means she’s on stage for pretty much the whole play, with little time for significant costume changes, and yet every character she plays is completely distinct from the rest. Deborah Maclaren, in contrast, has relatively few lines, but makes every single one of them count. As the Ape she gives a meticulously observed physical performance; it really is like watching a gorilla at the zoo. Hearing her inner monologue means we can’t help but feel sympathy for this dignified, intelligent creature who’s expected to perform day in day out for the entertainment of impatient and insensitive humans.
The production’s set and lighting design (Karl Swinyard and Ben Jacobs) skilfully contrast the clinical surroundings of Brodie’s office and various medical appointments with the artificial natural environment of the Ape’s zoo enclosure. Despite frequently involving a change of costume and setting the scene changes never feel overly long, due largely to Julian Starr’s increasingly urgent music, which helps maintain the pace and atmosphere of the production throughout.
At one point in the play, Brodie is offended when her doctor tactlessly suggests that linguistics isn’t a science – but it’s an easy mistake to make. We don’t tend to give the words we use every day as much thought as we should, and this play highlights how crucial language is not only in our interactions but also in our identities. It may be called Precious Little, but this thought-provoking play has plenty to say.
Precious Little is at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 15th June.