Ella Cook’s “Miss Sarah” is playing in the Pleasance Zoo’s Monkey House, currently the venue of venues for this year’s Tychy@ the Fringe. It might seem like a worthwhile drama but it is a long way from being a substantial one. This is not irritating if you have patience and imagination, though you are left in the end with a feeling of irritation which is there but not stirring.
Two seventeen-year-old girls, Sarah and Melissa, have gone missing after travelling to a folk festival somewhere in the Australian outback. We catch up with one of these girls (Ella Cook), who calls herself Sarah but who might be Melissa, on a wide dusty desert road. Robbo (Jordan Gallaway), a long distance driver in a utility truck, can see that she is a pretty girl in trouble. He offers her a ride.
You are probably thinking that this is a story which you first heard when you were six years old. It isn’t, in fact, that story. Nonetheless, the mystery and the allure of “The Phantom Hitchhiker” fuels “Miss Sarah” for much of the journey. Perhaps “Miss Sarah” is fondly fantasising of carrying off “The Phantom Hitchhiker” along with it, before the play finally gets serious and makes an effort to decide upon its own destination.
So what are we left with instead? We watch Sarah and Robbo flirting warily with each other on the road. Back at base, we watch Melissa’s estranged father (Adam Trussell) and her angsty aunt (Lily Newbury-Freeman) bickering over who is responsible for Melissa’s disappearance. Our gaze rests for long enough on these characters for us to be impressed by their depth and interest. Melissa is innocent but manipulative; the aunt wants to party but she knows that out of the two belatedly parental figures in Melissa’s life, she is required to be the sensible one. Despite the sense of menace which overhangs this story, there are actually no evil or dangerous characters. Robbo, for example, remains mostly fair-minded and gentlemanly.
What really happened at the festival? Who did Sarah leave with? What has become of Melissa’s boyfriend, who is mentioned all of once in this play? We have arrived at the wrong time – we are overhearing the wrong conversations! This play is the dregs of a lost story; there is a faint taste of something delicious, but which we are not able to drink. Strangely, however, this play is not as brief as it seems. It gives the impression of tightness and brevity, but over a length of fifty minutes. “Miss Sarah” may not be quite “Lynchian,” as it insists promotionally, but this claim expresses a hope to compensate for its smallness as a story with the richness of its atmosphere. It may do. We certainly bathe our minds in the loneliness of the desert, in the emptiness of Craig’s lonely house, in the quiet of Sarah’s motel room once Robbo has stormed out, in the haunting mystery of travellers who profess to have no stories.
One final thing: it turns out that the whole of “Miss Sarah” is extrapolated from a pop song by the Australian singer Kate Miller-Heidke. This makes the play appear more distant and clinical, as if it has plucked a tune out of the air and transformed it into a play, purely as an exercise. It reminds you that this is a debut outing from the English company Cicada Studios and yet it also assures you of this company’s promise.