Big Big Sky at Hampstead Theatre
Set in a café in remote coastal East Yorkshire, Tom Wells’s Big Big Sky is a grounded little drama with a big, big heart. Inspired by the playwright’s own café experiences from his hometown Kilnsea, and directed by Tessa Walker for the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, the play is a sweet 90-minute sojourn into lives of a community, rendered with deep affection.
It’s an unremarkable end of season for café owner Angie (Jennifer Daley) and barista Lauren (Jessica Jolley). Flocks of birds have migrated south, taking the keen tourist birdwatchers with them. Though the last visitor of the day is usually Lauren’s father Dennis (Matt Sutton) – on the scrounge for any remaining pasties and baked beans – he’s followed by an unexpected arrival (Sam Newton). Unbeknownst to this café crew, this small event will change the course of their lives.
Alongside its esoteric bird names, Yorkshire colloquialisms and slight rants about conservation and climate change, Wells’s script brims with warmth, humour and pathos. The audience are drawn into the seasonal cycle of this quiet establishment and it becomes difficult to contemplate leaving. Not only are characterisations strong and insightful, with revelations allowed to emerge organically, but the play’s coastline setting is evoked wonderfully for thematic resonance. In one instance, a photography competition of the local birdlife (played on the surface for laughs) provides subtext to a character’s reticence to grieve. While the play occasionally dips into being too idyllic and predictable, it never loses its sincerity.
Daley brings a calming, dignified presence to the watchful, comforting Angie, while also allowing glimpses of the restrained pain of her character. Likewise, Jolley gives an effortlessly no-nonsense attitude and fierce decency in her performance. Newton is both hilarious and touching as the socially awkward, budding conservationist. Anxiety builds believably into his physicality and his painful vegan jokes make him eminently lovable. Sutton blows in and out of scenes, grumbly and reserved – often comically “putting his foot in it” – yet it’s difficult not to feel sorry for a man so hapless and self-deceiving.
Walker’s naturalistic direction allows real intimacy to develop between the actors, especially in quiet beats held with genuine emotional weight. Designer Bob Bailey’s bright, clean café set, backdropped with a sweeping, painted cloudy horizon, is subtly embracing. Led by the cast’s wonderful performances, this production allows the beauty and tenderness in Wells’s play to soar.
Photo: Robert Day
Big Big Sky is at Hampstead Theatre from 30th July until 6th September 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.