Halfway into the Lyceum Theatre’s production of Charlie Sonata, written by Douglas Maxwell and directed by Matthew Lenton, a woman in the row behind me hisses to her friend: ‘I don’t understand what’s going on’, and sadly, by the end, I did not have a helpful answer for her. The production feels more like I’m reliving the lucid, disconnected memories from a drunken night before, mismatched tones and scenes incoherently joined together without rhythm or clear direction. The play has been called an odyssey, and, like Odysseus, the audience are thrown overboard into a sea of visions, far from any rationality. However, unlike Odysseus, there is no promise of a shore.
Despite being led by the phenomenal, scene-stealing Sandy Grierson, Charlie Sonata is a baffling patchwork of a narrative. Although composed of some gorgeous, tender moments of real connection the scenes are connected by an incomprehensible, unconvincing attempt at structure. Instead of flowing together to create a tapestry of tragic lives like it appears to be trying to achieve, everything becomes hazy, lost, and obscured by bizarre scene transitions, conversations that do not flow. The story itself and the characters within it scream potential, but they are stunted and awkward. Perhaps this is the point – emphasising how the purest of moments are fleeting and come at random. Perhaps it is trying to lure the audience into the ever-present fog of the smoke machines so that they forget about the world feebly constructed around them. However, no amount of ‘Wonderwall’ played hauntingly in the background on xylophone can distract me from the itch to know more or be shown more. The show strives for bittersweet elegy, for philosophical discussions on the supernatural and fate, for a fairy-tale, but loses me in the abrupt tonal shifts and the nostalgic early 90s references that have become tired in an age of glorifying the cassette tape.
However, the cast of the show are fantastic and bring as much life and energy as they can to somewhat shallow and ultimately forgettable characters who crowd a gorgeously designed stage. They flit in and out of the audience’s experiences while impacting nothing. There is a lot of potential to get to the heart of their individual stories; uncovering more about the doctor’s ethics and his relationship with his sister would, discussing the internal demons Meredith is attempting to keep at bay. There is a whole world just within reach, but with the perspective firmly Charlie’s, or even possibly the Narrator’s, it remains frustratingly blurry.
A show set in a liminal space, striving towards something coherent, struggling to achieve it, Charlie Sonata is a production that may have beauty in its fragility (and definitely does in its set and lighting design) but lacks in any gripping dynamism. Perhaps we are meant to take it as it is, indulge in it and then go on our way as if we are letting go of our own memories. However, despite Maxwell’s poetic dialogue, Charlie Sonata could easily be lost in the wind.