Essence, VAULT Festival

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by Jade Pathak

Essence explores the theme of loneliness, what it looks like, and its impact on human relationships.  Sarah Henley’s charming, new 60-minute play tells the story of how 32-year-old Elyot’s repetitive, meticulously-timed life which he has full control over gets blown apart when Laquaya – 14, intelligent, gentle, yet loud and argumentative – breaks into his home. It is an incredibly thought-provoking and hugely enjoyable story that everyone can relate to.

At first glance, the two seem so different. But even as their first encounter develops, we see that they have something special in common, beyond their basic interests and characteristics. Part of it is an energy they share, which is captivating yet almost manic. One seems an extrovert full of ideas and opinions who has forced himself inwards, the other longs to express herself and feels lonely surrounded by friends who don’t truly understand her. While the audience sees their similarities, Elyot and Laquaya do not. They clash immediately, and continue to do so throughout the play.

Elyot, played by Timothy O’Hara, is unwilling to change any aspect of his life that he has curated down to the smallest detail through years of shutting people out. Laquaya  becomes increasingly frustrated at him and his inability to let her into his life, but expresses it through bursts of aggression and anger.

O’Hara makes Elyot’s odd behaviour extremely funny and compelling to watch through  razor-sharp delivery of soliloquies and physical cues, which contrast his boring lifestyle. Nina Barker-Francis, as Laquaya, gives so much heart to her character and a lot of humour, too. Even though she is angry or boisterous half the time, we still easily see her delicate vulnerability and soulfulness as a teenage girl dealing with a pivotal moment in her life.  Combined, the pair are so relatable and their story is heart-warming.

The play is paced well, with both characters starting off strong. However when we see a pivotal change in Elyot, there is the suggestion of time passing. This leaves a desire for more information about this shift in his relationship with Laquaya. As it stands, it seems a little sudden for such a withdrawn and complex man.

Elyot’s ‘Life in Weeks’ board is illuminated but not noticeable straight away, until he crosses off his most recent week. After this, through clever staging and lighting, the board is illuminated even when nothing else on stage is. It serves as a reminder of how not to spend the short time we have on this world alone.

Essence is about what’s deep inside us and what we as humans need, beyond any fears and awkwardness we’ve picked up along the way. Henley has brought this to the stage with these two complex, but easy-to-watch, characters. It’s a play about barriers and breaking them down. It shows that once we get over ourselves and relax, we are able to get down to the essence of our being and truly connect with each other.

Essence runs through 23 February.

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