A toe-tapping track is playing as we take our seats for Sary: a folkish tune, set to a modern beat. It’s a fitting accompaniment for this stunning two-hander, which is faithful to its nineteenth-century setting yet tells its story in a distinctly contemporary style. It begins with a woman planning her own funeral - though it’s not a Christian burial she seems to have in mind. As the eponymous Sary speaks of her longing to return to the earth, we begin to understand her: she’s at home in nature, comfortable in solitude… and the people in the village think that she’s a witch.
The tale is based on old Sussex folklore, but playwright Sam Chittenden approaches it through a clever and defining twist. From beginning to end, there are two Sarys on stage: one older, seemingly near the end of her life, and one younger, at first barely more than a girl. Yet they both tell the story as though it’s happening now, experiencing the same events with younger and older consciousness. It took me a while to settle into, but the reward was something genuinely novel, as each development is explored by parallel perspectives delivered in real-time.
Sharon Drain (the older Sary) and Rebecca Jones (the younger one) are fine individual actors, but it’s the harmony between them that elevates the performance to the sublime. They aren’t so much synchronised, as in sympathy with each other; subtle echoes and resonances build the illusion that there’s a single character on stage. Feeling sorry for yourself is never appealing, yet it touches a nerve when the two versions of Sary show compassion for each other. And although both age perceptibly as the story develops, the younger Sary is always slightly more bright-eyed, the older Sary always slightly more sad.
Chittenden’s script, meanwhile, is a masterpiece of language. A smattering of local dialect lends a flavour of authenticity; a glossary’s provided but it isn’t really needed, since there’s always enough context to make the meaning clear. There’s a poetry and lyricism to the narrative as well, whether it’s describing the grandeur of a landscape or the shock of a miscarriage. And there’s some gentle education threaded inconspicuously through the plot, teaching us the folk traditions and natural remedies of Brighton’s own backyard.
Alongside the local flavour there are universal themes, of course: both personal ones - loss, age, self-discovery - and societal ones, as Sary slowly becomes an object of suspicion and fear. But don’t be too quick to blame the rumours on ignorance and superstition, for there’s a startling plot-twist on the way. That swerve, too, took a while for me to accept, but the telling of it is confident enough to carry me along.
The set-up could be a touch clearer - I don’t think it’s meant to be mysterious, and we were a fair way into the plot before I’d figured out the two women were both Sary - but that one point aside, this is an exemplar of crystal-clear narrative, and a masterclass in performance too. Folk tales have always evolved in their telling, and this bittersweet story of strength and independence forms the most elegant of bridges - connecting Sary’s rural Sussex to the audience of the modern day.