Sunday, August 9, 2020

Theatre review: Little Thing, Big Thing is feckin’ grand

Donal Kelly’s black comedy is full of satisfying surprises

Little Thing, Big Thing has one of the most surprising endings you’ll likely see on stage all year, but it isn’t the only thing that playwright Donal O’Kelly and the production currently on stage at Neptune’s Scotiabank Studio gets right in his dark comedy.

The story unfolds as Sister Martha returns to Ireland after completing a mission in Nigeria. Shortly before boarding her long trip home, she receives a roll of undeveloped film from a Nigerian friend with strict instructions to trust no one until she can deliver it to someone on the other side.

Enlisting the help of ex-con Larry, who is in the throes of a final criminal enterprise to wipe out a debt, the unlikely duo teams-up to deliver the film to Dublin. The two quickly learn though the contents of their package are being sought by a criminal force who would rather see them dead than have the film reach its destination.

As their madcap chase begins through the Irish countryside to Dublin, we quickly realize this is no ordinary cat-and-mouse game. Instead, playwright O’Kelly has all manner of surprises in store, including having his two actors play the multitude of other characters they meet along the way.

Director Jeremy Webb embraces O’Kelly’s fractured storytelling with some surprises of his own, with the help of stage manager Sarah O’Brien and backstage crew. Usually unseen, in this production Webb makes them an integral part of the action by helping with necessary costume changes, delivering key props, and in setting the play’s various locations.

Webb is also helped immensely by Jessica Lewis whose meticulous lighting design outlines the various locales, as well providing the necessary atmosphere.

In a show filled with surprises, it is perhaps the playwright’s refusal to bend to stereotypes which makes Little Thing, Big Thing so engaging. For while a nun and criminal thrown together under these circumstances may be the perfect set-up for a typical oil-and-water relationship, O’Kelly is much smarter than that. Instead, he allows his characters to eventually bond without resorting to cliché.

O’Kelly also forgoes the usual premise in shows like these, by adding international intrigue and a strong message to the core of its story. And even while they become laden down under their weight in act two, there is an immense satisfaction in the playwright refusing to take the easy road.

Helping to ensure this all works are two amazing performances from Francine Deschepper as Sister Martha, and Gordon Gammie as Larry.

Reprising their roles from the Merritt Award-winning Festival Antigonish production in 2016, there is an instantly believable chemistry between the two which immediately draws us into their world. Skillfully handling the often-quick changes into the dozen or so characters they meet along the way, both Deschepper and Gammie never miss a beat.

Another of playwright O’Kelly’s surprises comes from the layering of rapid-fire dialogue, narration, and sound-effects, all performed with precision by the two actors. While it may sound like an odd mix, on stage it adds an additionally satisfying, almost poetic, layer.

In his program notes, Jeremey Webb cleverly talks about convincing himself to revisit Little Thing, Big Thing after the success of the 2016 Antigonish production (for which he took home the Merritt Award for best direction). Given the strength of O’Kelly’s script and the inventiveness of this production, it was obviously not a difficult decision to make.

With only a handful of performances left in the run, it is also a decision Halifax audiences should take advantage of, as this is one feckin’ grand show that should not be missed.

Little Thing, Big Thing by Donal O’Kelly. Directed by Jeremy Webb. A Neptune Theatre production on stage at the Scotiabank Studio (1589 Argyle St, Halifax) until May 26. Visit neptunetheatre.com for tickets and information.

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