“…faith steps in when all facts fail…love leaping unafraid into the empty spaces between us and the unknown—“
The titular metropolis of James Phillips’ City Stories: Tales of Love and Magic in London, now playing as part of 59E59’s regular Brits Off-Broadway series, is a minor but important character in a collection of deceptively simple narratives. Her narrow old streets and tireless river wind their way through the accounts of events both massive in scale and momentous in their profound intimacy. It is the loom on which Phillips has spun some lovely, captivating yarns.
Phoebe Sparrow, Matthew Flynn in Pearl
Each short tale begins in a small moment, the carrying out of one’s daily routine or a single act of noticing, and unfolds to become expansive—in emotion if not in scale. There is simplicity and elegance in their telling, mysteriousness bordering on confessional delivery that reels one in seductively, enchantingly, like a lover. And if there is one core notion on which City Stories balances, it’s love. Love that, for better or for worse, when harnessed in all its potential, can open eyes and change lives.
There are six tales in all, four presented at each performance. (See the 59E59 website for a schedule.) The night I attended the selection was Occupy, Lullaby, Narcissi and Pearl. Singer/songwriter Rosabella Gregory took her place at the baby grand piano in the corner and played before, after, and during each of the Stories. Her voice is high and clear—reminiscent of Kate Bush without all those reverberating production effects. It’s a sharp and highly evocative voice that can soothe or sting, and it does both over the course of the two-hour production.
Daphne Alexander, Tom Gordon in Lullaby
The setting is something different for 59E59. The theater has been transformed into a cabaret-style lounge, with tiny cocktail tables, each topped with a single soft candle. The set is simplicity itself, consisting of two tall bar stools—and even those sometimes seem extraneous. The actors take their places, the words begin to flow, and suddenly it isn’t just a small, dark space but a river of memories as expansive as imagination if you allow yourself to be swept away.
Louisa Clein in The Great Secret
There are seven actors carrying the weight of six pieces. Though the sheer volume of words could have made it feel like heavy lifting for some, the performances never felt anything but graceful. Considering the caliber of actors, that isn’t a surprise. What was a nice surprise was how much the show depends on women. Of the four stories, only one, Occupy, came completely from a man’s perspective, and even then a woman was the driving force behind the action, her actions becoming the reason for the narrator’s personal development.
The other wonderful thing is how sure and unapologetic these women are. Even when they suggest a wrong decision had been made, that they could have taken another path when given a choice, that they could have lived to make others—and maybe even themselves—happier or more comfortable, they stand by their choices.
Daphne Alexander, Sarah Quintrell in Lullaby
With no fourth wall to speak of, each performance felt as much a conversation as a performance, with rhetorical questions, jokes and the occasional sly wink sent directly to the audience. They look you in the eye and feel unashamed. That sustained eye contact made it easy to let go and slip into the world behind the words to see it through the characters’ eyes. And being full of magic and tranquil gardens and soaring architecture and secret notebooks, a wonderful world it is.
Photos by James Phillips
Top photo: L-R: Tom Gordon, Rosabella Gregory, Sarah Quintrell in Narcissi.