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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Precious Little Talent
Trafalgar Studios   Spring 2011

Young playwright Ella Hickson announced her arrival in 2008 with Eight, a string of unconnected monologues that showed she could create and sustain characterisations through her words.

She followed up at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009 with an early version of Precious Little Talent, whose greatest strengths were still in the monologues, with some forgivable difficulty in connecting them in what was perhaps an overly ambitious vision for the play as a whole.

She returns now with a revised and expanded version of the play that fulfils all her early promise. It is not a masterpiece of major proportions, but it does what it sets out to do, in an emotionally involving and thoroughly satisfying way.

A nineteen-year-old American lad meets and seems to hit it off with an English girl a couple of years older, only for them to discover that they are already connected through coincidence.

She is in New York to find the father from whom she has been estranged, but the older man is in the early stages of dementia, and the boy is his paid carer.

The father desperately wants to keep the truth of his condition from his daughter - in a particularly moving monologue he explains what a terrible insult it would be to make her watch him forget her.

The daughter has her own reasons for feeling rootless and needing to anchor herself to something or someone to give her a sense of identity. And the boy, one of nature's gentlemen, is torn between attraction to the girl and loyalty to the man.

In the course of a Christmas season we watch them dance around each other, alternately reaching out and drawing back in self-protection, as we are guided to hope for a happy ending by the playwright's evident and infectious love for all three of them.

My imperfect memory of the Edinburgh version tells me that Hickson has retained the strong set pieces - in addition to the father's monologue,there are delightfully inconsistent accounts of their first meeting by the boy and girl - and fleshed out the scenes involving all three, building our sense of their growing trust and connection to each other.

She has also played down an attempt in the original to overlay a metaphoric contrast between British pessimism and American optimism, much to the play's benefit - as much as I admire the ambitiousness of that added layer, it is best saved for another play.

Keeping the focus on the three characters allows director James Dacre and the cast - Ian Gelder (father), Olivia Hallinan (daughter) and Anthony Welsh (carer) - to create and sustain a reality we respond to.

I don't want to overpraise this play. It is a small work, but it achieves its aim of making us believe in and care about its characters, and that is no modest achievement.

Here's what we wrote in Edinburgh two years ago:

The author of this short play, Ella Hickson, has an abundance of ideas but not quite the discipline or skill to control them, so her play spins off in too many directions instead of cohering. But all that means is that Precious Little Talent is a flawed play by a real writer, and that's a lot more interesting and exciting than a well-made play by someone with no real promise. On one level, the play is a standard rom-com, with a couple who meet cute and then discover a complication - in this case, he works for her father. But the boy's job is as carer for the man, who is in the first stages of Alzheimer's, and the father desperately does not want his daughter to find out. And on top of that, father and daughter are English and the boy American, and Hickson puts a lot of weight on the ingrained pessimism of the one and instinctive optimism of the other. So there are at least three different plays there, and a more skilled technician than Hickson is at this point might have been able to unify any two, though probably not all three. There are several very well-written scenes that testify to Hickson's talent and give her cast opportunities to shine - Simon Ginty as the boy excitedly describing the couple's magical meeting and Emma Hiddleston's later slightly more clear-eyed account of the same event, John McColl explaining how unbearable it would be to have his daughter watch him forget her, and Hiddleston seeing the inauguration of President Obama as representing everything about the American spirit she envies. Gerald Berkowitz

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Precious Little Talent - Trafalgar Studios 2011

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