Sophie Woolley runs the course of modern tragi-comedy with her latest one-woman show 'When to Run?' Or so says Melissa Mostyn
Keeping theatre-goers focused on what amounts to a solitary figure acting out several characters for an hour or so can make one-person plays notoriously difficult to pull off. You need a vocal and physical malleability in order to change character seamlessly, while simultaneously regulating time and energy spent on each. Too still and your glazed viewers begin to fancy a whitish nimbus emanating from you; too frenzied, and they lose the plot.
Demands for sustainability can be persistent and brutal: plot, characterization, pace, clarity. That Sophie Woolley met them all single-handedly in her self-penned play, When To Run, subtly tweaking her white tracksuit top here and there to mark her frequent metamorphosis (she never once changed costume), both accentuated her astounding versatility and a skill for pin-sharp observation, shrewdly enhancing her hip mainstream appeal. With a momentum that pounded steadily like the footfalls of a marathon runner, the play left me breathless.
Neither a piece of disability or deaf arts, When To Run is about Life: today's social mores, to be precise (especially if you're female). Doing what she's always done as a writer/performer since before going deaf, Woolley specialises in picking over fresh slices of urban life with affectionate mockery. Her people are the sort you'd recognise in a London park or gym: 15-year-old Shelley, a would-be athlete; dog-walker Julia, who gets her kicks from watching runners; Celia, a life-coach; and Emma, a self-obsessed executive.
Interwoven into a narrative derived through rich, character-defining monologues, the four women fleetingly encounter - and then compete with - each other at various intervals, little knowing how a man who looks a bit like Tony Soprano will cause their lives to collide.
Shelley watches Emma in mid-run, noting how she befits the archetypal snooty professional living in wow factor 15 loft apartments; meanwhile Emma narcissistically gloats over others' unfit state, shadowed by Celia, rendered expressionless by Botox. Through it all, lonely Julia sits on the bench surrounded by dogs, relishing the spectacle.
Running thus becomes a comic metaphor for life's little tragedies, a symbol of the women's pathetic attempts to escape personal drudgery. Only through the libidinous actions of Mickey - his existence represented by devices such as the mobile phone on which Shelly discovers the other three on speed dial, or the baby son's photo coincidentally shown by Emma, his wife, to Celia, his lover - do they meet heart-break head-on.
In the confusion, as the sole person not romantically entangled with Mickey, Shelley becomes an inadvertent commentator, disappearing upon delivery of the final twist (which I won't reveal) before returning to the track at the 2012 Olympics as a triumphant heroine.
Despite an obvious fondness, Woolley permeated her characters with a satirical glint throughout, thrilling us with belly-achingly funny anecdotes to the very end. After performing extensively at the Edinburgh Festival and other touring venues, she must have found the Purcell Room daunting, with just a few feet of pretend grass and a wooden park bench dividing her from an auditorium packed to the hilt with a mixed deaf and hearing audience. Kudos to her, then, for sticking religiously to her script, her timing mirroring perfectly the PowerPoint subtitles that appeared above her head against a silhouetted city backdrop.
I know Woolley would have insisted on them anyway as a deaf person, ensuring that they changed colour, font size, even linguistic or phonetic quirk accordingly: boorish for Mickey, gobby and grammatically current for Shelley, cut-glass for Emma. Concern for accessibility aside, through storming to the finish with such force, Sophie Woolley proves that so long as you can take great dramatic strides with wit, originality and imagination, progressive deafness is no barrier.