NB: Lucy Loughnane both co-wrote and performs in this semi-autobiographical play. The character she has written is also called Lucy. To distinguish these three, mentions of ‘Lucy’ will refer to the character with which we are presented; ‘Lucy Loughnane’ or ‘Loughnane’, however, refer to the artist as a performer uniquely; and any considerations of the artist as the co-playwright will be further specified in the text.
This review will consider Ascent, a play co-written by Lucy Loughnane and Joseph Ward, performed by Loughnane, directed by Ward, and staged at the Museum of Comedy. Ascent has great promise but completely loses sight of its identity halfway through, after struggling to establish its voice early on.
I shall start with the sociopolitical agenda of and undertones to this performance. Writers Loughnane and Ward’s main character, Lucy, navigates the complex field of class concerns and representations, discovering and acknowledging her own privileges and the privileges of others, or lack thereof, and aiming to dismantle prejudices against her milieu and background. The text covers in substantial detail a perspective on systemic classism in the UK, uncovering also prejudices and hypocrisies existing amongst working class defenders and denigrators, and justifying the occasional access to otherwise inaccessible resources and facilities from which members of the working class might benefit.
The political content is both honourable and explicit, but this explicitness soon works against our reading. The text is decisively fictitious, offering a comedic and endearing character through which we can uncover the political secrets of the play, presenting all of this to us through a linear first-person narrative. Lucy is presented to us by Loughnane somewhat caricaturally, also, upon which I shall elaborate below. This indirect mode of communication is effective, allowing us to identify with the political content via our newfound bond with a loveable character. However, the voice of the text takes an unexpected and inefficacious turn turns to poetry before losing sight completely of Lucy’s character and resorting to lecturing its audience. Both of these shifts in voice are far too drastic and deliberate, destroying what the performance has thus far worked so hard to construct. It feels as though writers Loughnane and Ward intended to instrumentalise our audience-character bond to merely ensnare us into a political rant. This is not effective and is a surefire way, moreover, to disengage an audience — especially if they do not already share the writer’s views.
A performance can be a fictional play whose messages and didactic style educate its audience by appealing to their humanity, or it can be a sterile and lengthy lecture. Both approaches can be effective, but they cannot exist within the same performance, for they are two distinctly different modes of communication, for this leads to confusions of performance style and voice. Characters should not be utilised as a mere, uninterrupted mouthpiece for the political beliefs of the writer, however accurate and impressive these beliefs may be; a character must disguise, reveal, expose. Otherwise, why bother presenting a fictional character at all, if all they should do is preach unadulterated truths, losing all aspects of their fictional characteristic identity in the process? Of course, this is a semi-autobiographical work, but the argument still stands, as we are being presented with a fictionalised version of Lucy Loughnane, Lucy Maughan, nonetheless.
Writers Loughnane and Ward then attempt to prettify this otherwise heavy and prescriptive material by finally returning to the character of Lucy, who expresses again her associations with outer space and celestial bodies with an undertone that preaches a certain universal hope and postmodernist spirituality. However, this is so far from this dictatorial lecturing — in it voice, its romantic content, its apoliticalness, its character-based narrative and its general content — that it feels like an altogether separate play. It does not complement the political spiel we just heard but juxtaposes it, clashes against it, allowing for an imbalance and disconnect in the material.
In fact, these scenes, romantically dedicated to space, stand out against all of the material with which we are presented. These soliloquies are certainly well written, engaging, pretty, revelatory, but their voice and content are far too different from the rest of the performance, such that they do not reveal anything about the character or her context but simply romanticise aspects of the universe and promote solipsistic faith and fulfilment. Certainly, I could dig for symbolism — how Pluto’s ‘loneliness’, for example, could reflect Lucy’s own sense of disconnect, from her parents; her hometown; her fellow, classist university students; etc. — but this is too far a stretch and is not in keeping with the direct and literal storytelling devices with which we are presented throughout elsewhere.
Inconsistency in voice and style is a persistent problem throughout this performance, and there are many questionable stylistic decisions when it comes to expression and movement. It feels as though the creatives intended to compile every theatrical technique they knew into one performance, and the effect is a sloppy, clichéd and unparticularised text: from ‘folding’ [scrunching up] clothes, simply moving them from one pile to another; to puppeteering a MacBook as a bird; to punctuating every word with a symbolising action with a knife and fork. This latter is particularly strange to me, given that no other section of the play is performed in such a deliberate, literal and aggressive manner. The creatives have clearly intended to infuse the text with as much dynamism, energy and momentum as possible; the effect is a completely inarticulate and voiceless performance. Simplicity is, indeed, sometimes key.
There are some notable positives, however. Until about halfway, the plot presented to us is coherent and engaging. Lucy’s character is developed well, her actions impact the plot’s progression, and her relationships with others and the overall world in which she lives is clearly fleshed out. The [former portion of this] text is certainly comedic and endearing, with its uses of sarcastic remarks and comedic assumptions, and this allows us not only to connect with Lucy’s chanter but to access her self-depreciative and self-devaluing propensities and her progression away from these.
As for acting, _ has an excellent and unfaltering energy throughout. She is bold and confident; certain of her characters’ intentions and feelings, even when these are not explicitly clear to us; and adequately expressive. However, beyond a change of accent and tone, there is very little to discern her various characters from one another. One peculiar entrance, almost a classical walk, sees her introduce her ‘posh’ character, who is perhaps the most distinguished out of all of the profiles presented, and this precedes a series of character changes. Frankly, I was unable to comprehend what reading I was supposed to make of this sequence, as Loughnane delivers one story in various accents, her general profile unchanging in spite of this. I believe this is both an editorial issue and an issue with acting. This section is simply unclear, however humorous it certainly may be. I would recommend that Loughnane work on physical characterisations, as opposed to vocal expressivity alone. I should also mention that this aforementioned distinctiveness in portraying the ‘posh’ character is far too caricatural, stylised and melodramatic, out of place when paired to Loughnane’s general characterisation of Lucy.
One final note on design, namely lighting design. Blackouts are used most precariously in this performance, often rapidly between scenes, and lighting states remain unstable, with lights pulsing, changing colour, etc. Visually, this performance is highly volatile, and not in a pleasing, dynamic way. I would recommend more decisive lighting states and reconceiving the use of these blackouts. Lighting should aim to complement and facilitate the action; it should not be yet another performer, drawing needless attention to itself and hence away from the action on stage. The lighting design for this performance is certainly much too distracting and destructive to illusion. It is also ill-timed, its pulses and fades causing us to miss out on some of the action, such that I must admit that I actually thought a technical mishap had occurred at the first lighting state change, which another, vocal audience member had also believed. Moreover, this chaos for which it allows further justifies my claim that the creatives intended to throw everything they could on to this stage.
As stated in the beginning of this review, this dramatic text does have incredible potential, and Loughnane performs well. However, this inconsistency in voice and style is far too destructive. Writers Loughnane and Ward need to better consider which effects they wish for their performance to have, and in which manner it should be expressing itself. Currently, the performance is far too chaotic, attempting to show so much that it, ultimately, shows very little.