I went into Essence not having a clue what to expect, but by the end I came to adore it. We meet these two characters who appear to be polar opposites at the start. But as they get to know one another during the one act play, the shoots of their friendship begin to emerge and we’re left with the feeling that they’ll become better people for knowing one another. It’s a peculiar yet charming piece written by Sarah Henley and directed by Tori Allen-Martin.
In the opening scene, we first meet Elyot (brilliantly played by Timothy O’Hara) who’s going through a carefully devised routine as if to maximise his consumption of the good things in life. Reading, yoga poses, spritzing plants, learning languages, ‘resting’. This is all regulated by a peculiar motion censored alarm. In frequent intervals, the alarm rings and with two claps, Elyot stops the alarm and moves on to his next activity. Whilst going through these motions, Elyot delivers lengthy monologues about what makes life meaningful, and the importance of measured progress.
We quickly learn that Elyot’s repeats this routine on a daily basis. That is until Laquaya (Nina Barker-Francis), a teenager, breaks into Elyot’s home and disrupts the balance and order that he’s established. Barker-Francis is a singing and dancing firecracker in this role and an inescapable presence. I won’t spoil here what exactly brings the two of them together, but it’s a connection which Elyot is keen to deny. Laquaya comes off as abrasive and dismissive of Elyot’s routine, and so it’s no surprise that he wants nothing to do with her at first.
It’s a prickly start in getting to know one another, Elyot describes himself as impenetrable, like a wall. But regardless of their differences in age, skin colour, the way they speak and the music they listen to, they manage to find an understanding and respect for one another. As an example, Elyot removes all the words from an Alicia Keys song, dismissing the lyrics as trivial and emphasises that the music is most important. But Laquaya teaches him about how the essence of the song is in the words.
Overtime, the pair begin to understand one another and go on this journey which is surprisingly endearing to see. Our society can feel more divided than ever where we develop tribes and focus on what separates us. But despite the very clear differences between Elyot and Laquaya, they are eventually able to connect in a heart-warming way. The piece teaches us about the importance of leaning into society rather than withdrawing from it and regardless of how different we may be, there’s always the chance to connect with other people if we let them in.
Essence is running at the VAULT Festival until 23 February.