4000 Miles at Minerva Theatre, Chichester
4000 Miles was set to mark the much-anticipated West End debut of Hollywood star Timothée Chalamet. The actor was to appear alongside Dame Eileen Atkins in Amy Herzog’s dramatic comedy (which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) at the Old Vic. Cue the pandemic, which caused the ready and rehearsed revival to be repeatedly postponed and ultimately cancelled.
Fast-forward to 2023 and the play has a new home in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre. Now with director Richard Eyre at the helm, Atkins remains, with Sebastian Croft of Netflix hit Heartstopper taking the baton from Chalamet.
The intimate venue marries well with the material, which is set entirely in the living room of a New York apartment. It is the dead of the night when 91-year-old Vera (Atkins) is greeted by an unannounced visitor: her grandson, Leo (Croft). She lives alone, making nightly check-in calls with an elderly neighbour and using the Yellow Pages rather than Google. She loathes her age and all the ailments it has inflicted on her – especially when words are cruelly snatched away so that she is unable to articulate her thoughts.
Lively Leo has a breezy demeanour, which masks a quiet vulnerability and obscures the painful grief he is experiencing. He and his best friend, Micah, were cycling 4000 miles across America when a traffic accident claimed the life of the latter. Seeking solace with a relative he hasn’t seen in some time, Leo agrees to spend the night, which inevitably morphs into several months. At odds with one another at first, the two gradually grow closer and realise they are not so different after all.
Set designer Peter McKintosh presents a gorgeous book-lined wall, which towers over Vera’s living room. Past and present paraphernalia clutters the coffee table, vinyl records rest on the floor and coats and scarfs hang in the hall. It feels lived-in, homely and the kind of house where even the walls have stories to tell. Thanks to the audience configuration, we feel we are right there, almost intruding on the inhabitants. While there might not be a tremendous amount of plot for us to digest, Herzog offers a nuanced and engaging character study, hiding her observations and commentaries among the wonderfully naturalistic dialogue that runs throughout the 90 minutes.
The play is charmingly conversational, with the more poignant moments emerging organically, rather than ever feeling forced. When Leo suddenly hugs his grandmother, that fleeting moment carries immense emotional weight. There are multiple layers here, peeled back so delicately by Herzog’s deft dialogue and the way in which Atkins and Croft so seamlessly excavate it to produce beautifully believable, detailed characters.
Atkins anchors the production, ushering in the laughs from the moment she is on-stage. Demonstrating exceptional comic timing, the performer also impeccably intertwines staunch independence with the fragility inherent with age. We fully invest in the character from the off. Crucially, we also believe in her relationship with her grandson: they are both opinionated, they clash and they disagree but it’s obvious that an unwavering love exists between them. Atkins and Croft share an endearing back-and-forth and it is simply a joy to witness their relationship unfold and develop before our eyes.
Croft commands an excellent American accent (shoutout to dialect coach Penny Dyer) and delivers an assured, well measured performance. We see the cracks in his facade as the actor subtly showcases the pain his character is endeavouring to conceal. There is solid support from Nell Barlow as on/off girlfriend Bec, and Elizabeth Chu garners some laughs as Chinese-American hook-up Amanda, who makes a sharp exit upon discovering Vera’s books on communism.
While such topics are alluded to, Herzog is more concerned with the themes of grief, loneliness, communication, age and identity. All are explored without being too overt – although a particularly memorable scene in which Leo finally pours his heart out to Vera, only for her to reveal she hasn’t got her hearing aid in, humorously hammers home the point.
With Atkins and Croft providing acting masterclasses, a London transfer seems inevitable.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
4000 Miles is at Minerva Theatre, Chichester from 4th May until 10th June 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.