Review: Footfalls & Rockaby, Jermyn Street Theatre ★★★★☆

Michael Billington described Samuel Beckett’s later works to be “as much art installations as drama”. Tom Littler, Jermyn Street Theatre’s Artistic director, echoed the difficulty in labelling these works, referring to them as more like “poetry” in his post-show remarks. Tonight they feel like meditations on isolation.

Footfalls and Rockaby, two of those later works, make for a perfect pairing, and the Jermyn Street Theatre the perfect location for them, with its intimate 70-seater cellar and black painted walls.

Siân Phillips in Rockaby. Photo: Steve Gregson

Two sets by Simon Kenny sit beside each other on the tight stage; a strip of flooring, illuminated around its edges in florescent white for Footfalls, and a rocking chair, boxed in a cube with illuminated edges and open sides for Rockaby.

Footfalls opens with the single chime of bell – the meditation begins. May (Charlotte Emmerson) paces the strip – counting the nine steps from one side to the other as she speaks with her unseen mother (Siân Phillips). Phillips’ recorded voice fills the space with ethereal, melancholic tones while May appears isolated, despite the voice that accompanies her, as she goes to and fro, pulling her cardigan tighter and tighter around her. This is a ghostly play, the feeling enhanced with a spectral soundscape by Adrienne Quartly – though whether it is May or her mother (or both) who is not of this world is unclear.

 Charlotte Emmerson in Footfalls. Photo: Steve Gregson

Emmerson is entrancing, drawing you into the puzzles of Beckett’s language and playing May with a childlike vulnerability that is somehow ageless – ‘so little,’ she says when she informed by the voice that she is in her forties – she is both a child and an adult.

Another bell chimes to open Rockaby – a new meditation. The lullaby that Rockaby begins with, and Phillips’ dual role as the voice in both plays, more than hints at a link between the plays – a suggestion that the mother in Footfalls is the unnamed woman (Phillips, again) in Rockaby. Phillips sits in her rocking chair for the duration, occasionally mouthing along to the end of the recorded sentences like someone singing along to a half-forgotten song and demanding ‘more’ when the voice stops it’s repetitive stream of consciousness.

The sets of Rockaby (left) and Footfalls (right) by Simon Kenny. Photo: Steve Gregson

Ben Ormerod’s lighting perfectly captures the unnamed woman sat by a window in the moonlight. Like May, she is isolated too – dressed all in black and waiting for death to come and rock her away.

Footfalls & Rockaby is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 20 November and at the Ustinov Studio, Theatre Royal Bath from 24 November – 4 December.