There are only two days – but four performances – left of Annie McCourt’s innovative and award-winning new play “Moth to the Flame,” which is presently playing upstairs/downstairs at Paradise in Augustine’s/ The Vault. The play makes great demands on its two teenaged actors, Joe Spense and Katurah Morrish, and it is a grand thing to see them respond with such finely-judged performances. Kids grow up so fast these days, but this is a play about young people – about how uniquely alive they are and how far away from the distant and painfully unglamorous world of adults.
The stage looks like a dressing room, with costumes and props strewn everywhere, but the actors will prove ingenious enough to erect the entirety of Cumbria out of this refuse. The sharp-witted city kid Phoebe finds herself being sent on an indefinite holiday with her aunt and uncle out in the sticks. She falls in with the only other teenager in the village, Dickie, who cannot contain his excitement at finally having a friend of his own age. Actually, both of them have Northern accents, and so to my mind they are as provincial as one another, but this is perhaps a moot point.
Dickie is angular and scrawny, and the adult in me wants to shout out, “stop slouching! Stand up straight!” Phoebe is dressed like a prostitute and I don’t like being made to feel sexually interested in a sixteen year old. Perhaps we are only seeing her through Dickie’s eyes and her emotional vulnerability gradually eclipses her initial physicality. The pair quarrel like an old married couple and they bashfully begin to get serious about each other. A sort of rhythm emerges in which their dialogue is repeatedly interrupted by brief alternate soliloquies and the audience thereby hears of their fear and paranoia.
Twenty minutes into the play and one has lost their heart to the pair. As lovers, they are as perfect as Romeo and Juliet. As the play progresses, they become as immaculate as Bonnie and Clyde. But they are ultimately a forlorn Adam and Eve, who are naked before one another in their teenaged wretchedness and actually fighting to get out of the garden. A snake of sorts appears and then the flaming sword is unveiled. Perhaps these lovers find the lost Eden of the story in their own breasts.
If you want a happy ending, it is probably best to leave ten minutes before the play ends. “The Moth and the Candle” is a bit too determined to break your heart, a bit too cruel in leaving Dickie a virgin. Despite the title, Dickie is more than just a moth and Phoebe is more than a flame. All young people are stupid and selfish, but it was not beyond these two to transcend themselves and achieve a love worthy of their story.