When I interviewed Nathaniel Jones and Leah Aspden about their new show Thamesis, Aspden told me she had “never seen or heard anything like it” in Oxford drama. Having now seen it for myself, I have to agree, although I sincerely hope I will in future. Jones’ performance was a joy to watch, and under Aspden’s expert direction they have a highly successful show on their hands.
The play begins with the admittedly well-worn metatheatrical trope of the performer running onto an empty stage and apologising to the audience for his lateness, although the energy with which Jones imbues his entrance ensures it does not feel like a tired usage. Jones is endearingly dressed in a style a little like a boy scout, with knee-length shorts and a rucksack flapping off his back. He immediately sets the audience at ease with his light-hearted chatter, a difficult feat whilst simultaneously setting up his own stage with a cluster of fake candles and a comically long string of fairy lights. I truly couldn’t tell you whether he was supposed to actually untangle the lights or get frustrated and leave them in a somewhat haphazard bunch as he ended up doing: either way it was charming to watch and made it impossible not to sympathise with this chaotic, bumptious presence on stage. This establishment of mild, adorable incompetence is key to ensuring we do not feel patronised as Jones starts to explain that he is here to teach us about the rituals of Midsummer and pagan belief more generally. Aspden and Jones handle this didactic element to the show with skill and precision, ensuring we leave knowing a lot more about these ancient rituals that we did upon entering whilst never feeling we are being lectured to. When using a term he thinks we won’t understand, like ‘litha’, the pagan word for the summer solstice, Jones pauses afterwards as if waiting for someone to ask what it means, before asking the question himself and proceeding to explain. While this device sometimes made for a slightly uncomfortable silence (at points it was unclear whether Jones himself was actually anticipating an audience question, highly unlikely from a small BT audience, or simply in-character), it was very effective in allowing Jones to keep the audience up to speed with his story without losing pace or breaking the atmosphere.
Aspden’s direction shone throughout, the comic touches a clear addition of the Oxford Revue co-president and a welcome light-hearted dimension to a script that, as the show goes on, begins to deal with heavier issues. As we watch Jones’ character unravel before our eyes, excellent use is made of the lights and sound, operated by Evie Norton who becomes a character in the show as Jones’ asides to her to ‘get the lights back on’ become more desperate and, ultimately, futile. The two lighting states, bright for didactic or light-hearted chatter and deep blue for pagan spirituality and secrets revealed, begin to slip out of the character’s control as we are pulled along with him into past relationships and trauma he is being forced to confront, effectively symbolised in one beautiful moment in which the only light on stage is that of Jones’ laptop lighting up his face at the corner of the stage as he reads from his teenage diaries. In another particularly shocking and effective moment towards the end of the show, the audience is left to confront an empty stage as Jones runs into the wings, unable to face what is being blasted over the sound system. While perhaps this section could be a little shorter (an audience appreciates being trusted to understand something without having it repeatedly shouted at them, although perhaps this is necessary for the character to understand), it nonetheless provides a necessary and well-constructed emotional climax to the show, and leaves us feeling we have ended up somewhere quite different from where the show started.
Overall, Jones is delightfully captivating as an actor and proves himself a skilful writer too, weaving together a story of magic and darkness that is sure to stick in the audience’s mind long after they leave the haunting blue lights behind. As well as Aspden’s comic genius, a particularly delightful aspect of the show is Jones’ beautiful singing, set to an original folk score. In what might otherwise be quite an intense hour for both performer and audience the songs provide moments of peace and reflection, and help to reinforce the mystical quality of the show’s atmosphere.m Maybe the ancient followers of paganism were onto something, or maybe Jones’ spellbinding performance was really just that good, but I left ‘Thamesis’ feeling as though my soul had been soothed, and I can’t wait to see what this talented team gets up to in the future.