[Review:] SOPHIE, The Hope Theatre, London.
For clarification, where ‘Emily Curtis’ or simply ‘Curtis’ are mentioned in this review, these refer to Emily Curtis as a performer; where ‘Emily’ alone is mentioned, this refers to the character of Emily within the dramatic text. Similarly, where ‘Sophie Potter’ or ‘Potter’ are mentioned, these refer to the real individual and performer; where ‘Sophie’ is mentioned, this refers to the character of Sophie within the dramatic text.
Sophie is a wholesome and enjoyable performance that celebrates the thirtieth birthday and life thus far of ‘Sophie Potter’, sister to the writer and solo performer of this text, Emily Curtis.
I find the dramatic text to be somewhat misleading at first. After noticing the huge silver balloons that spell Sophie’s name, and the gift bags in front of them, we settle in the space to be shown projected footage of Sophie welcoming the audience to her birthday party. She encourages the audience to “have fun” and to “dance”. After this, Emily Curtis then enters the stage – not Sophie Potter – and introduces her sister, who is sat [by chance?] in the audience. Curtis thanks us all for coming, even addressing individual audience members as though characters, family members, in the play, and then the main body of content begins. First, this content addresses Sophie’s history directly, her birth and the discovery that she has Down syndrome, her childhood…and then the focus changes: Emily is born, and we turn our attention to Emily’s personal experiences with Sophie throughout her childhood and adolescence. Our focus now remains heavily upon Emily throughout, and we only learn of Sophie through her and no longer from the omniscient narration Curtis first offers us towards the beginning of her performance.
I hope it is obvious how many shifts in perspective, audience-performer relationships and subject matter there have been already within the first five minutes of the performance. We are set up to feel as though we are active participants and that we have a pre-existing relationship with Sophie that will be strengthened by our interactions with Sophie herself. But then we get her sister, instead, and we also become mere listeners, observers. This is why I will write that it is easy to feel cheated by this performance when we realise that the story we will hear is not the story of Sophie but the story of Emily and her relationship with Sophie, Emily’s perspective and experience of her, her feelings towards her.
I think it was a bizarre and erroneous choice to have Sophie address us via this footage in this way. It was also fallible to interact with us so directly in the beginning, only to re-dim the houselights and not interact with us at all again throughout the performance. In fact, there is one notable interaction that we do have with Curtis: when she walks around the parameters of the stage, exhibiting her bare hand – to the front row only, taking no interest in the second – and asking us to imagine that she is presenting a photograph. The role and function of the audience, then, is entirely confused along with who we understand the principal performer to be. What is more, there is a stylistic inconsistency where photos and videos have always been shown thus far projected onto the screen above…so why the awkward, forced, campy and in-your-face miming now?
I am not sure if Potter is present in the audience for all performances of this play, but she was present on the night I saw the performance, and this was even more confusing. We were forced to ignore that she was there, which was made difficult by the fact that Emily Curtis deliberately gave her and her friend eye contact frequently throughout, notably performing to them at some points, especially when presenting the funnier or more sentimental material. If Potter is always present, this needs to be re-examined, and she should be far better physically integrated into the performance in some way, even if this means seating her on stage as the birthday girl, continuing to address us as alongside her as though giving a speech at her birthday party. This would be the logical approach to making the shift in performers at the beginning more decipherable. If she is not always present, then Emily Curtis must, regardless, be aware not to come out of character and break the audience-performer divide merely because she recognises someone in the front row. This completely destroys illusion.
So, all audience-performer confusions aside, I shall focus more specifically on the dramatic text alone. As I mentioned above, I struggle with the fact that the events of the play are revealed to us through Emily. Really, we learn very little about Sophie by the end of this performance. We learn nothing palpable about her identity, her specific traits and idiosyncrasies, her personality, her psychology… We learn that she is caring and compassionate and that she does not care what people think of her, but this is hardly enough to concretise our vision of her character. I do like that we learn about Sophie through Emily, particularly because it makes Sophie’s Down syndrome, which is a fundamental part of this text, a lot more accessible to those who have no experience with it, but our focus remains so heavily concentrated upon Emily that we lose out on significant details about Sophie. For example, we are just to accept that Sophie has a boyfriend now and dreams of marriage, or that she is confident in managing her period and sees herself as a grown lady, without any indication as to how Sophie arrived at these interests and mindsets.
In fact, we miss out on quite a lot of information for the text favouring Emily’s history over Sophie’s. I think of Emily’s frustration with Sophie, in particular. Emily starts to drift away from Sophie in her teenage years with the verbal abuse she receives from others because of Sophie’s Down syndrome, and suddenly, they are both adults and Sophie is wanting to get married at the age of thirty…? We are just to accept that sisterly love, maturity and growth have prevailed and that Emily has instantaneously seen past all of this when hitting adulthood. A lack of linear narrative, then.
Regardless of whether it succeeds in meeting its aims and doing what it sets out to – which is what influences my rating, amongst the other details I mention in this review – this is still a wonderful text. It is chiefly a depiction of Emily’s life over Sophie’s and ought, if anything, to be called Sophie and Me, but it still remains incredibly wholesome and a treat to watch. A relatable and heart-warming story of learning to love and appreciate one’s sister, whatever differences life throws at us.
I would just note that there is a tendency in this text to over-rely upon the character of Sophie’s superficial positive attributes: innocence, endearment, cuteness, purity. This is problematic only because there is a lack of substantial disclosure of her character. We have no understanding of who she really is, only an account of her acts of kindness or impulsive and unbridled passion. We understand that she is a good person, fine, but we are not permitted any further concrete, profound or detailed understanding of Sophie’s identity, character or psychology. Her descriptions are limited merely to this innocence and purity, and whilst this positive overview is something we would expect of a birthday speech, it is not something we would expect of a play detailing someone's entire life; we would expect detailed character profiling and development, to gain an understanding of history, backstory and progression of narrative.
On to Curtis’s performance itself. A weak beginning – made worse, of course, by the odd shift from direct address to ‘traditional’ dramatic storytelling – but Curtis certainly demonstrates great energy and stage presence. She has a clear understanding of the dynamic use of space and exhibits above-adequate conviction. However, she suffers from a huge lack of credibility and naturalism. This is no fault of the written text’s but is due, instead, to her intonation, to the ambit of her gaze, to the positioning of her body and to her overall manner of delivery. Curtis habitually plays to the front of the thrust stage, ignoring that she is far too Downstage to be visible to any audience members on the Upstage sides. In fact, anyone here in the second row would have had a good view of the back of her head for almost the entirety of the performance. Staging needs to be urgently re-addressed, then. For the setting of a birthday party, I do rather favour the thrust staging, but, as the performance currently stands, with the birthday party featuring so little in this performance in actuality, I would see no significant subtraction in having end staging, with the audience viewing the performance head-on. In fact, I think it would be beneficial.
Some final notes on performance. Whilst Emily characterises her mother and grandmother very well, any differentiation beyond these two is incredibly poor. It is the written text alone that allows us to understand what is happening in scenes. Further work on character distinction should be practised. Pacing…Curtis must work on this, particularly between scenes. Take time between scenes so as not to overload the audience with information. Finally, do not wait for tech cues! It is often the case that Curtis freezes, waiting for music to play, and when it does, her reaction time is far too slow. Put faith in tech operation and make your next move automatically, in the hope that the tech will do its job and facilitate you well. Although, I should note that tech operation was rather poor, with the operator unable to decide at which volume to keep songs, playing them too loudly at first and altering the volume quickly multiple times after, and with far too many lighting states.