Emily Gibson and Kavi Noonan in actionChristopher Lorde with permission for Varsity

The lights go up on Megan O’Neil’s directorial and writing debut, How To Commit Arson in a Loving Way. They illuminate Margot (Emily Gibson), a suicidal young woman whose journey into wellness we will soon traverse (whether we like it or not). They reveal the timid form of Margot’s therapist (Kavi Noonan, double-cast as Death, Margot’s kinda-sorta-boyfriend). But it’s not Gibson or Noonan who catch my eye. It’s the words, stitched in sequins on Gibson’s shirt – the words that I would read over and over for the interminable hour and a half to come. EVERY DAY, it reads, IS ALL ABOUT ME. Now I don’t know who made this particular costuming decision, but they are a genius. The shirt sums up How To Commit Arson in a Loving Way in one fell swoop: it’s self-indulgent, self-obsessed, and demands that Gibson give it something to hang off.

How To Commit Arson in a Loving Way is not really about anything. Sure, it’s Margot’s journey out of depression. Fine. But there’s no real progression. O’Neil’s script falls into the trap of rehashing the same moment, and it unfortunately but inevitably stagnates. However, the real problem isn’t the play’s structure. It’s the dialogue. How To Commit Arson in a Loving Way is told almost exclusively in Margot’s long, unwieldy monologues. I expected a play with a title like How to Commit Arson in a Loving Way to be wise-cracking, darkly comedic. I’d have settled for simply smart. Instead, I felt like I was being thumped with constant literary allusions and pseudo-Plathian images. I was waiting for Medea, and I got such bare-bones that even Rupi Kaur might have called it a little on the thin side. When Margot mentioned listening to Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, and Joni Mitchell, I nearly cackled out loud; likewise, when I spotted the complete works of Sylvia Plath perched at the stage’s edge. You see, I’m an English student with a penchant for Joni Mitchell, so this might be morose pot calling depressive kettle black. And yet… this is the kind of script that I just know was written to a Phoebe Bridgers album. Moon Song has already been written. I wanted this to say something new.

How To Commit Arson in a Loving Way should be great. Ensemble members Lee Schwartz and Enya Crowley give admirable performances, though they feel a little token. Each only has a couple of lines, and their characters are set-dressing more than characters in their own right. In my stupor, I was left wondering if Schwartz and Crowley had been as bored in rehearsals as I was during the performance. Noonan had a little more to do. He was one-half of the few seconds of the play I actually enjoyed: a dance sequence between Margot and Death, whom she appeared to be dating. The scene is joyous, kookily romantic, and deeply fucked up. It put me in mind of the iconic dance scene between Uma Thurman and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction: two people who absolutely shouldn’t have had a connection finding one anyway, complete with incongruous soundtrack. It was moments like this that made me want to take O’Neil by the shoulders and tell her to chase them down. I needed her to go after what might make this show unique. I’ll admit: the image of a suicidal young person having a situationship with Death is pretty damn inspired. It broke up the endless monologues and proved that O’Neil can actually write really quite powerfully. But How To Commit Arson in a Loving Way doesn’t know when it’s onto a good thing, and the dance scene is soon replaced with more tortured metaphors. Margot becomes pearls, Hamlet, a church window, velvet and silk fabrics… It’s tactile imagery and still I felt like the script was reaching for something that wasn’t there.


Mountain View

Yerma shows signs of blooming

We do need to talk about the Eeyore in the room: namely, Gibson’s performance as Margot. Gibson is fantastic. She needs to be – she’s speaking for nearly all of the show. It takes a rare talent to stand out in a show; it takes a rarer talent still to drag a script kicking and screaming into moments beyond mediocrity. Gibson is funny when she needs to be; a wry, broken kind of humour that makes you question whether you’re going to Hell for laughing (or at least, would have done if I hadn’t been so unbelievably desperate for a punchline amidst the platitudes). She moves across the stage, light-footed as a bird (and believe me, that metaphor is laboured heavily enough that it belongs on a maternity ward), then changes, whip-quick, to a husky-voiced temptor, trying to flirt with her therapist to feel something, anything. She collapses to the ground in a pitiful, clawing heap of misery enough times that made me wonder if she was trying to get something out of the performance too – namely, cardio. I’m not one to make this comparison lightly, but Gibson put me in mind of a young Fleabag: wise-cracking and heart-snapping and wearing everything on her fraying sleeves. The problem is, Phoebe Waller-Bridge had an Emmy-winning script to work with. Gibson had something even 2014 Tumblr might have called overwrought.

I wanted to like this play. The problem is, it’s not a play. O’Neil has written a poetry collection – a very lovely poetry collection, chock-full of imagery that’s functional if not original. It would work on the page, I think. It doesn’t work onstage. I was bored, exhausted, clutching at phrases that I wanted to see written down, not performed. It’s like the t-shirt said: EVERY DAY IS ALL ABOUT ME. In making Margot centre-stage rather than centre-page, How To Commit Arson in a Loving Way was on fumes from the start.

How To Commit Arson in a Loving Way is playing at the Corpus Playroom from Wednesday 13 to Saturday 16 March