‘You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family’ is the phrase that pops into mind while watching Christopher Neels Hummingbird, a co production from Bruised Sky Productions and Fledgling Theatre Company, now playing at VAULT Festival.
Surely, no-one would willingly choose to have Phoeb in their home. But she is family, and half-sister Jude and partner Brian don’t have a choice, just as they didn’t have a choice when it came to settling the estate of the sisters late father, or when they took over his farm, or when they had to declare Phoeb’s boyfriend, Gavin, dead following his mysterious disappearance.
Now Phoeb has returned to the familial home, she seems intent on being as nasty and disruptive as possible. Perhaps with good cause, she doesn’t believe Gav is dead and blames Jude and Brian for the action they’ve taken.
According to Phoeb, Gavin has returned in the form of a Hummingbird, which she’s keeping in a small cardboard box. With Brian’s help she wants to build herself a set of wings so that she can fly alongside Gavin in the vast expanse of the countryside. Brian’s plans for organic flavoured milk are put on hold, as are the couple’s dreams of having a baby, much to the distress of Jude who shares her feelings with one of the farm’s sheep – Merryl Sheep.
This surrealist comedy manages to find comedy in the unlikeliest of places, for as annoying as Phoeb is, there are clearly mental health issues running as an undercurrent to her behaviour. Jude’s own dissatisfaction with life is amplified in her conversations with Merryl, a sheep who seems to get everything that Jude wants but can’t have.
Virginie Taylor’s set design places us in an old-fashioned farmhouse style kitchen, which also doubles as a workshop, and is surrounded by lines of washing hung out to dry. When Jude and Brian lie in bed at night, the effect is achieved by stringing a sheet between the two kitchen cabinets, and there’s some impressive projections that also help take us into different parts of the story.
Louise Beresford is marvellous as the unlikable Phoeb, succeeding in making the audience both anger and frustrated by her behaviour. With a longer running time, perhaps we would have started to feel some sympathy for the character, but then that may have ruined the whole dynamic.
Nancy Zamit and Amit Shah work well together as Jude and Brian, and when their relationship becomes strained you can really feel it through Zamit’s heartfelt delivery. Shah portrays anger, hurt and betrayal without missing a beat and gives one of the best performances at VAULT this year.
A surreal comedy about grief and mental health is a tall order, but Hummingbird mostly delivers. The plot becomes over complicated at one point, and the audience might end up questioning one or two of the scenarios, including a random song and dance routine, but it is very funny and leaves its audience wishing we could spend more time with this dysfunctional family unit.
VAULT Festival 2023 runs Tuesday 24th January to Sunday 19th March, full listings and ticket information can be found here.