Review: City Love at the Bussey Building, Peckham ****

Lucy has developed better coping mechanisms: a five-year career plan and a paragraph of The Secret every night before bed

City Love 1 (c) Sam Swainsbury 1024
Lucy (Natasha Broomfield and Jim (Ian Bonar) in City Love at the Bussey Building. Photo: Sam Swainsbury

Newcomers to the city imagine the rest of the London population in two ways. They see the faceless angry commuters who hate each other and everything, or they see the smug couples who seem to spend their weekends falling from one Instagram-worthy scene to another.

Jim and Lucy are looking for the second in order to escape the first. Jim, a failing graphic designer played excellently by Ian Bonar, has slept with only two women and lives in his sister’s spare room. Glaswegian Lucy, played by Natasha Broomfield with almost unbearable emotional armour, has developed better coping mechanisms: she rents her own flat, has a five-year career plan and reads a paragraph of The Secret every night before bed.

Simon Vinnicombe’s City Love is the story of Jim and Lucy, who meet on the night bus and fall spectacularly in love. The couple tell their story as two interwoven monologues (directed at a counsellor, it seems), as they attempt to pick up the pieces and work out where it all went wrong. Too many directors when faced with a script of this kind have actors freeze when they aren’t speaking. Instead, Sarah Bedi cleverly created reactions to the other’s storytelling, meaning the connection between the two characters was never lost. Moments when the switch is made from third to second person, and they address each other, stand out in poignancy. In another clever choice from the director, key scenes from the relationship are played back as a voiceover – a soppy phone call, disappointing sex – while the couple cringe on stage at the memory.

The writing is engaging, sharp and witty and it is no surprise that Vinnicombe’s work has been so well recognised, although it sometimes felt as if the potted observations of London life would be better kept to his Twitter account than his scripts. At times, the account of disappointing urban life seems clichéd (has any woman genuinely taken dating tips from Cosmo?), but cliché in the end is exactly the point. It is the sunny picture of love – strolls through Spitalfields market, snoozes in Richmond Park – that the pair are looking for. One wonders what they were falling in love with: the person or the temporary respite from the feeling that everyone else is having more fun than you are.

The play is presented by The Orange Line Collective, a new theatre group which is south London born and bred, named after the Overground link you travel to get to the gritty Bussey Theatre in Peckham Rye. The tracks run past the theatre and at times during the performance you could hear the carriages rattling past, a timely reminder of the pressures of the city that the couple are struggling against. Vinnicombe wrote the play with the location and venue in mind; the night bus was Peckham-bound. The stage, a spacious but blank canvas, is all that was needed – the brief nod to set design in the form of the collected detritus of a relationship hanging from the ceiling did no harm, but added little.

Bonar and Broomfield’s acting was near faultless, retaining energy, humour and emotion throughout. I would have liked to see a deeper and darker sexual chemistry between the two, but their gentler form of affection worked very well. At times, it all felt a little too close to home – the sign of some very impressive writing and acting indeed.

4 stars ****

Words: Rosie Hore

City Love, a new play by Simon Vinnicombe opened this week at CLF Art Café, The Bussey Building, 133 Rye Lane, SE15. It runs until 28 Sept and performance times are 7.30 (3pm Saturdays). Booking via Ticketweb @busseybuilding

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