Spiders isn’t perfect. A cursory flick through my notepad would show that quickly. I could write a review of Spiders just nit-picking, nurdling, drawing attention to small moments here and there which weren’t effective. And that review could be very long, and perhaps quite interesting, and maybe even a little bit useful – but it would have, on some more important level, failed. That review wouldn’t explain why I loved that play. So, I’ve written this review instead.
There are more than 300,000 homeless people in the UK. Mia (Caroline Elms) and Harry (Samuel Parkinson) are two of them, both young, both with concealed pasts and uncertain futures. In their shared, graffitied squat they play out the millennial dream: Monster Munch, TV, and social emancipation. Mia is 17, a runaway, her independence belying her maturity. Harry is older – 20, 22 perhaps – he doesn’t know his age. She asks him what he wants to be when he grows up, and suddenly the pair feel much younger. They play games, make chatterboxes, and hold hands when the lights cut out.
It is Harry that pulls us into the story. We are drawn to his passion, his humour, his morbid enthusiasm for spiders. There’s a strange, awkward charisma about him, stemming from a strong dimensionality of character and a scattered, flitting train of thought. He wants to make nature documentaries – and we want him to make them; we want to listen to him pulsate and grin endlessly as he describes a tarantula hawk injecting its eggs into its victim and eating it from inside out. He wants to be Steve Erwin – not the orangutan-hugging, calm, naturalist, but the visceral, wild Steve that wrestles alligators and punches sharks. Parkinson’s performance is rich and finessed, wracked with enormous tension, displaying complexity and intricacy throughout. His voice, compelling and engaging, carries us into the show and fills the theatre.
Mia initially feels like an odd foil to Harry. The space seems to demand a similarly enormous character, an equal but opposite force to push back, but for the first couple of scenes Mia just barely makes her presence known, with short interjections and quiet one-or-two-word answers. There’s a huge payoff to this early concealment though. Where Parkinson is larger-than-life, Elms is just life, distilled, still, on the sofa. She watches Harry like we watch him. Then she builds, gradually, finding anger and drive and, eventually, passion. When she gets her outburst it is painfully real, desperate, grounded with a teenage righteousness and confusion. It’s a perfect capture of imperfect life, a flawed, non-theatrical reality, and a deftly crafted contrast to Parkinson’s exuberance.
The grounded reality of both Mia and Harry is that they can’t save someone who doesn’t allow themselves to be saved. “Pick your battles,” Mia tells Harry, but they both pick poorly, unwilling to fight their own problems in favour of fighting fecklessly for each other. The greatest strength of Billie Collins’ writing is using the exploration of two individuals and their relationship to reflect on broader social questions. Spiders isn’t a rally against helping people – far from it – but it is a warning against self-sabotage and an acknowledgement that our efforts must be consensual; we are not always able to judge what is best for someone else, and not always willing to do what is best for us.
Afterwards, on the street outside the Tristan Bates, I talked briefly with a man named Jerome – middle-aged, dreadlocks, tired smile. He is one of five rough sleepers I see on my way home. It’s more difficult to ignore them after the play. That seems important. Harry accuses the middle-class Mia of a voyeuristic interest in him, likening it to Benefits Street. I think that maybe I am a little guilty of this. I feel guilty I don’t have
Image: Tara Rose