Sometimes it can take a little while to settle into a play. That’s certainly the case with Firefly Heartbeat at the Hope Theatre, a play of two halves despite being only one act long.
At the start it seems to be going around in circles. The play opens in the filthy home of Australian sex worker Madeleine (Kellie Jane Walters), the space littered with sexual and non-sexual detritus. She’s soon joined by Stuart (James Sutherland), a middle-aged man who arrives for conversation rather than sex – which should instantly set off alarm bells. The dialogue feels a little clunky, like a bullet point list of questions, the stories they tell seem blatantly symbolic and, initially at least, the actors lack chemistry. Madeleine seems to succumb to Stuart’s questioning too quickly, whilst neither character seems to say very much at all.
The characterisation, too, is clichéd. Madeleine flits between girly and flirtatious to strong and overly defensive, a woman dependent on a sordid line of work in her desperation for money yet independent and distrusting. Stuart, meanwhile, is calm, quiet and nervous, his character precariously balanced between vulnerable and simply odd.
It’s acutely obvious that you’re watching a play. The situation feels constructed rather than believable as you simply wait for the inevitable plot twist (no spoilers here), knowing that neither character is quite who they seem.
It’s with that twist that the play hits its stride and tensions escalate. This is a power play between the two characters, power shifting rapidly with each unpredictable moment. Suddenly, Stuart’s calmness becomes unnerving and eerie – he begs Madeleine for forgiveness for the impact he had on her past, but is he really worthy? As for Madeleine, her varying nature becomes unpredictable, perhaps even psychotic. Perhaps she is lying, but to protect Stuart or herself?
Firefly Heartbeat, then, is something of a slow-burner, even in its one act running time. The narrative circles of the first half are necessary to make sense of the eventual ambiguous climax that’s intriguing, powerful and harrowing, led by two actors who leave absolutely everything on the stage.
Watch: Firefly Heartbeat runs at the Hope Theatre until 23rd May.