Don’t be fooled by the genteel sitting room, with its small creature comforts (decorative pillows, crocheted throw, wing chairs). What the young woman standing here is telling us is anything but cozy. It’s a narrative steeped in blood, shit and ejaculate. And that’s just the first five minutes.
Who is she? And what on earth brought her here?
Her name is Amy, and though she’s still a teenager, her life so far is a funny-sad-disturbing saga that verges on the epic. Just a few of the headlines — born into a dysfunctional, poor family in West London, Amy is unable to hold down a job, saddled with an abusive boyfriend, and filled with anger. Later, she turns to burglary, and… well, you get the idea.
Yet in Spine, Clara Brennan’s intriguing, occasionally implausible but mostly inspiring one-character play, Amy is no victim. She recounts her story with forthright wit, never feeling sorry for herself. Moreover, this house — where she’d hoped to rent a room as a last-resort place to live — turns out to be life-changing. The elderly woman who owns the place takes an interest in Amy, and shares with her the secret stash of books she’s been stealing through the years from libraries, as they close down. As Amy reads, she changes.
Much of the charm in Spine comes from the unlikely intersection of hipster nihilism and feel-good sentimentality. There are traces of Shaw’s Pygmalion throughout, including a bracing dose of political rabble-rousing. But even more, Spine reminded me of Donna Tartt’s grand novel, The Goldfinch, which evokes a similar tonal blend. (Spine could be seen as a love-letter to libraries, as Goldfinch is to art museums.)
There was a bit too much hokum for me in The Goldfinch — and frankly, there is here, too. But fortunately, it never overwhelms the piece, and it’s consistently undercut by Emily R. Johnson’s extraordinary performance, which is full of electric energy and bone-dry humor (and pitch-perfect British-ness). If the monologue form means that we have only storytelling, never conversations, the stories here, in Brennan and Johnson’s hands, spring vividly to life.
Spine, like several other works Inis Nua has produced over the years, was first a hit at the Edinburgh festival. I haven’t always felt these works translated easily, but this one absolutely does. Please see the show, beautifully staged by director Claire Moyer at company’s new home at the Drake. And bring a teenager with you. You’ll have a lot to talk about.
Spine runs through March 6. For more information, visit Inis Nua Theatre Company’s website.