The Engagement is a love story with a difference. It’s a new play written by James Alexander Allen, inspired by a true story from Wayne Liversidge. Allen, an emerging screen writer and playwright, collaborated with Liversidge to tell his story as part of the Hove Grown Festival.
The play opens with Gerri waiting for a date, and hastily tidying her sister away. As the two chat, sister Luanne delivers an sense of something inexorable: this is Gerri's eighth date. Will it be any different to the previous seven? Will the man even show up?
John does show up, and a relationship develops very fast, but cracks in Gerri’s seemingly normal life are brushed aside – at least until Luanne explains to John what is going on. As with anyone embarking on a new relationship, they both want it to work.
In the script's first act, I feel there is an artificial quality to Gerri’s character and the emerging relationship, which undermines their later struggle. This may or may not be intentional. The plot is realistic, nothing is overstated, but I still find myself asking: why are John and Gerri attracted to each other? How do we know they really love each other and are not simply ‘playing at love?’
Eden Avital Alexander gives us an accomplished performance as Gerri; towards the end, her training in physical theatre comes to the forefront. Subject to terrible mood swings, we sense the chaos of her world, and Owen Bleach skilfully portrays John's resulting panic. His character develops well, from a carefree young man whose only preoccupation is to make it to the next football match to a lover desperate to help Gerri – who may be just beyond his reach. His world shrinks as he is absorbed into Gerri's, for better or worse.
The pace and plot of the play are well-judged. With great poignancy, John – always at Gerri’s side – keeps saying “This is not the real you” as his lover spirals down, her personality distorted. It falls to Luanne (played by Faith Elizabeth) to comment on history repeating itself. Yet when Gerry finally takes a different approach to her inner demons, the consequences are bleak.
I recommend The Engagement as a debut play which has great potential, and was very popular with the audience. As Allen’s first play for theatre, it certainly provides food for thought, and could be developed into a longer piece allowing for more character development at the start. I’ll look out for his future work.
Allen should be applauded for tackling issues often taboo in polite society, and Wayne Liversidge also deserves respect for his courage in telling his story. True stories are often the most compelling.