live review:What Wonder

by Alice O'Rorke

★★★★

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‘What Wonder’ was originally meant to go ahead before the pandemic hit in Spring 2020; rehearsals were in full swing, advertisements were being posted and the performance dates were looming closer. Yet sadly and unexpectedly, this was all brought to a grinding halt as isolation ensued. Han Morgan, the director and writer, continued on their mission, and a year and a half later ‘What Wonder’ has made it to the Winston Theatre. The wait was long, the anticipation was high, but overall, I found the performance in front of me to be charming and earnest.

            The play begins with Ethan on stage as Lily confronts him about where he has been in the last three days. We know that he has been absent and not returned home, but the details remain ambiguous. As he shares a book that he has been reading, we are thrown into its storyline and are transported to Ancient Greece where Helene is striking by camping out on the medical school’s roof, refusing to come down until she, a woman, is accepted into the school. The play continues along this split storyline, with Ethan explaining Helene’s story to Lily, and meanwhile reluctantly elaborating on his own troubled home life. Ethan tells us that there are no happy endings. We realise as the play progresses that he believes this to be true, which leads him to question “what’s the point” of trying, when failure is pretty guaranteed. We watch the Grecian plot with a pessimistic lens and thus are pleasantly surprised by the ending.

Whilst I wonder what made Han choose the Ancient Greece setting, as I’m not sure about the particular symbolism of this location, I suppose that the setting isn’t really what mattered – in theory it could have been set at any time. The play, I think, was more to do with the repression that young adults face at the hands of societal expectations of conformity; how dangerous the underestimation of youth can be.

We see character development in both plots – Ethan goes from shouting and angry to tearful and contemplative, whilst Iris begins to question her acceptance of her husband’s abuse. Bursts of humour infiltrate the serious and troubled Ancient Greece setting, mainly through the character of Echo, played by Chloe Hunkin, and this comic relief was well timed and humorous. 

There were some parts that I was not fully convinced by; notably Ethan’s character blaming himself for his mother’s illness, which I think was overstressed and repeated too much. I also think that the play could really have done with an interval, as the act was too long. But I really enjoyed the acting and think that every single character was performed effectively. Special mention goes to Gabriel Adebiyi’s performance as Dexter, which I found to be really powerful. Upon his first surprising entrance which made me jump, his engagement with the other actors and complete commitment to the character was special to watch. I also particularly enjoyed Gaby Thomson playing Helene and Kira; her effective performance of the contrasting roles only worked to make her performance all the more convincing.

            Han, in the Director’s Note, stated that they ‘tried to capture the richness and vivacity of young people’s lives’, and ultimately I do think that they did this. Although I think some symbolism may have been lost on me, I did really enjoy the entire performance and thought that it was beautifully done.