A never-ending cycle of addiction, recovery and relapse, Charlotte Josephine's Pops is a cleverly grounded piece of familial theatre. Daniel Perks reviews:

Charlotte Josephine’s powerful, honest writing lies in the unsaid, the small talk and pauses between father Nigel Barrett and daughter Sophie Melville. And those numerous, tiny moments are stretched towards a deliciously agonising infinity in Ali Pidsley’s direction. Pops is all about that white noise and chatter, saying so much and meaning so little.

Pops Assembly Roxy
Sophie Melville & Nigel Barrett (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

It’s in the talking over each other, the not knowing, the stammers

The daily grind, the no-words staring into space

The routine, those little niggles, “That’s how I like it”

It’s in the things unsaid, the smallest variations to the drudgery and monotony

The yes-no’s, trying to be better but never really meaning it

“Hiya love”

               “Hiya”

“Come and sit down”

*blank stares at a blaring TV screen on a worn-out chair, or some garden furniture*

Repeating ad nauseam into a mind-numbing catatonia

Pops Assembly Roxy
Nigel Barrett & Sophie Melville (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

It’s in the tape deck, surrounding cassettes and raggedy mat on stage

It’s in the same song that Barrett plays again and again and again through Kieran Lucas’ sound design, a soundscape that holds its silence so poignantly, impactfully, reverently

Then it’s in the imperfections in Josephine’s realistic and grounded writing, the not-good-enoughs and the home truths

The conversation topics the duo skirt around, until they don’t, until the subtext and the snipes and the subtlety bubbles over

It’s the contrast between memories and experience, false recollections against painfully real facts

It’s in the fruitless verbal distraction tactics before butting heads and clashing views, inevitable and unavoidable

And then it all explodes, in disappointment and despair and the feeling of drowning, suffocation, imminent personality death

Pops Assembly Roxy
Sophie Melville & Nigel Barrett (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

But then Pops twists again, Josephine’s narrative gorgeously writhing and slithering like a wounded snake

It becomes about talking with each other, fondly reminiscing, genuine belly laughter

It becomes about familiar comforts, a no-words-needed emotional connection

It becomes reassuringly routine – those little pieces of happiness, a cup of tea with semi-skimmed and almond milk, “that’s how we like it”

It becomes tender and loving and genuinely caring – a pause and a knowing glance, talking and acatively listening

“Hiya love”

               “Hiya”

“Come and sit down”

*happily watching TV – an old favourite – on the well-worn floor, together*

Repeat with joy, safe and secure and stable

Pops Assembly Roxy
Nigel Barrett & Sophie Melville (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

And Pops could easily end there, a depiction of families who have those gripes and grumbles, those arguments and fights, and then love and forgiveness. With that ending in mind, Pidsley’s direction would frame a wonderfully warm show that rallies against the image of family dysfunction in a turbulent world.

But it doesn’t. Josephine doesn’t rest on their laurels, but pushes and dares to risk upsetting the apple cart. It works – all that deliciously juicy fruit scatters everywhere.

It’s in the reveal, the never-ending cycle, the familial baggage that far exceeds its weight limit and yet can’t be consolidated or shrunk down.

It’s in the manic dance, the drink, the demon on each other’s shoulder,

the back to square one, thinking this time will be different but knowing that it won’t

Pops Assembly Roxy
Nigel Barrett & Sophie Melville (image courtesy of Murdo MacLeod)

Pops both depicts addiction and is itself addictive. In the hands of Melville and Barrett it’s an unnerving portrayal of how easy it can be to slip back into old habits. And like Josephine’s writing, Pops stays rolling around the psyche long after the effect is felt.

★★★★☆

Pops is now playing at Assembly Roxy until 24 August 2019, before transferring to the HighTide Festival in Aldeburgh on 10-15 September 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the festival website.