If you see only one show at Cambridge – see this
This is student writing as I hoped it would be – fresh, raw and inspiring, Spiders is a play that doesn’t try to be a huge moral tale or an epic journey, instead focusing intimately on the everyday life of two people. It asks poignant questions about morality, class struggles and the status of suffering, but also paints a touching, and sometimes funny, picture of two young adults who don’t yet have the answers. Harry (Alistair Henfrey) is squatting in an abandoned flat, with no A-Levels (yes, Cambridge, there are people like him out there) and no real vision for the future until his world is quite literally turned upside down by the entrance of Mia (Jessica Murdoch), a well-meaning but often naive middle-class girl who’s run away from stifling suburbia to experience “real life”.
For just two actors to hold the audience’s attention for almost two hours is no mean feat, and Henfrey and Murdoch certainly rose to the challenge. The hard work that must have been put into this production, from the directors and production team, as well as the cast, was evident in every moment – it was beautifully naturalistic and seemed to really be a window into these two people’s lives, but at the same time it was incredibly artfully produced. The music was brilliantly suited to the show’s aesthetic, really adding tension to certain scenes, but also framing genuinely touching moments of intimacy – and I liked the touch of having the characters turn the radio and television on and off, with the music playing first from the appliances themselves, before blending into a soundtrack for the scene.
Kate Collins’ writing, combined with some excellent casting – I particularly enjoyed Alistair Henfrey’s accent, and I was very impressed at how natural he made it – has created a play that is the perfect antidote to the Cambridge bubble. The touching but not condescending portrayal of poverty seemed aware of its own privilege, in a way that the character Mia (Jessica Murdoch) certainly was not. When Harry (Alistair Henfrey) walked on with a cup of ice, recommending it to put off hunger, I was struck by the power of silence in this play: it was not a loud production, for all the shockingly effective moments of verbal violence, and the silences in moments of poignant reality like this really held weight in the enclosed space of Corpus Playroom.
This was not, however, a straightforwardly didactic or preachy moral tale, as it easily could have been. I wanted to like the extremely complicated character of Mia, as on the surface she seemed to stand for things that I broadly support – valuing equality and education, and rejecting the superficiality of modern middle-class existence – but she also holds up a mirror to many of the worst kinds of uneducated, privileged intervention. Her social media campaign was a shocking invasion of privacy, and yet we have all seen viral videos of people helping the homeless and felt smugly optimistic about our society. In telling Harry that “you could be a proper person” and spelling out “blue” for him, Mia is clearly patronising, but we are also shown that her life, despite its privileges, has been far from easy.
The chemistry between the two characters was excellent, creating very real tension, even as they mimed on stage before the show began. Henfrey’s reactions (as Harry) to Mia’s (Jessica Murdoch) words were outstanding throughout – I could read every emotion as it crossed his face, and he commanded the stage with his compelling characterisation. In fact, I thought the most touching scenes where those in which Harry (Henfrey) let his guard down, and allowed his vulnerability to show. These moments hung in the air amidst the rapid scenes, and make this play a difficult one to forget.
I think everyone at Cambridge should see this production, to give some perspective to our own privilege and to raise questions about suffering and empathy, but to do so through a play that does not try to be more than it is: a beautiful and entertaining piece of theatre.