How It Ended @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast list
Miren Alcala, Kate Hewitt, Rosamond Martin, Nathalie Meyer, Fran Moulds, Mariana Pereira, Roger Ribo

concieved and directed by
Emily Watson Howes
Emily Watson Howes’ elegant How It Ended achieves a lot with seemingly little.

Story is very much at the heart of a piece that, with few props, movingly charts the arc of an ill fated romance, from its beginnings, during the tail end of the Second World War, to its inevitable end.

Lillian is one of five sisters living in a village near Swansea. She meets Raymond, a young French man training to be a pilot, at a dance.

Though she speaks no French, he at least knows a little English; they are able to communicate just enough for something between them to spark.

And because it is a time of turbulence, where nothing is steady, a time when bombs are falling from the sky and where emotions are skewed and heightened, this spark of theirs becomes a fire, with flames hot enough that Lillian’s sisters notice.

Despite the reservations of Lillian’s elder sister, Nerys, after just three weeks the couple marry. He goes off to fight, to do his duty, and then, as they promised each other, when the war ends and France is liberated, she goes home with him, to live with his family. She is also now pregnant with his child.

It is only as they embark on this new life as husband and wife that they start to realise how little they know of each other. The reality of their situation slowly makes itself visible.

The show was originally staged at Camden People’s Theatre and went on to be a success at last year’s Edinburgh fringe. It is a sensitively structured piece that works well in the Arcola’s intimate studio space. The physical aspects of the staging work in harmony with the narrative, with the use of music and voice creating a strong sense of atmosphere. When not actively part of a scene, the performers sit around the sides of the studio forming a kind of chorus, playing instruments, singing and humming, creating the sounds of the sea.

It’s very effective technique, but subtly done: it never swamps the story. Though the performers wear 1940s costume, tea dresses and sturdy shoes, there are few actual props, only a length of white lace, which is used in multiple ways. It both binds the couple and then divides them and is finally used to represent their new born child.

The cast work well together. Kate Hewitt’s Lillian is both girlish and grown up, only gradually awakening to what she has left behind in agreeing to follow her husband to France. Roger Ribo makes Raymond suitably charismatic, but a decent man at heart, not a cad. His new wife frustrates him; he watches her weep and doesn’t understand what she wants of him. Fran Moulds is also memorable as Nerys the eldest sister, compelled to play mother to her four younger siblings from the age of sixteen as is Nathalie Meyer as Raymond’s mother, perplexed by this strange interloper into her family, this daughter-in-law from a different world with whom she cannot even communicate.

The production clocks in at just over an hour. It ends rather abruptly, it just suddenly stops, which is a bit of a let down after what has gone before but is perhaps not unappropriate – sometimes things just end. This is a fine piece of storytelling with the ring of a tale handed down over time, moving without being sentimental, and presented in a way that manages to be theatrically creative without sacrificing narrative momentum.

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