Making its London premiere, Briony Lavery’s Last Easter opens at The Orange Tree Theatre, the next production in the theatre’s reopening season. It’s a play that comes with a trigger warning, the central character has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, but instead of focussing on the prospect of imminent death, Lavery’s script finds the joy of living, and despite being written some fifteen years ago, feels as pertinent as ever.
When June, a lighting designer, is diagnosed with secondary cancer she sets off with three friends on a pilgrimage across France, she thinks it’s a final holiday, but the group are taking her to find a miracle cure at Lourdes. June doesn’t believe in religion, and her friends; an actress, a prop maker and a drag singer, are the only real hope she has.
While the first act takes us on this European journey, the second deals more with the aftermath, touching on even more difficult subjects, such as assisted suicide. It is, at times, a very difficult and painful watch, but it’s also fused with a great deal of humour.
One of the running themes are Gash’s awful ‘Doctor, Doctor’ jokes, but Lavery offsets these with a much deeper humour, that of human nature. Each of the characters, bound by their industry, have their own distinct roles to play in June’s story and their very human reactions provide a great deal of levity.
Director Tinuke Craig has made good use of the small stage, Lavery’s script repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, and Craig ensures the cast take full advantage of the intimate space. There might be very little in the way of props, but the chairs on wheels are used to great effect, and the keyboard in the corner allows this play to have a musical connection.
With the toughest role to play, Naana Agyei-Ampadu as June garners much empathy from the audience. Often referred to as ‘the bitch’ by other characters, their love for her is clearly evident, most notably from Gash (Peter Caulfield). Jodie Jacobs shows versatility as Leah, and Ellie Piercy clearly relishes the role of Joy, and the over the top bravado that comes with it.
A play about a lighting designer, needs to have good lighting design itself, in fact Lavery’s own stage directions make this abundantly clear, and here, Elliot Griggs does not disappoint. The stage is often painted like a sweeping canvas that would rival June’s beloved Caravaggio, and much consideration has been placed on balancing the lighting with the torrent of emotions brought out in this production.
Last Easter is poignant and sometimes harrowing, but it also manages to capture the indelible strength of friendship. Lavery’s authentic script means that June’s plight will strike a chord with many, and perhaps make us wonder who our own actress, prop maker and drag singer would be.
Last Easter is at The Orange Tree Theatre until 7th August 2021.