Although familiar with Haruki Murakami, I have not read his 1999 novel of identity, Sputnik Sweetheart. Bryony Lavery’s adaptation, premiering at the Arcola Theatre, certainly made me want to. The story of best friends Sumire and K, the latter of whom is hopelessly in love with the former, navigating the new world of adulthood; as crises, particularly of sexuality, emerge, they find themselves split into two, or travelling between worlds, and the ideas that begin to crystallise are fascinating.

Credit: Alex Brenner

Those ideas, however, still feel nascent, stymied by the form of the play. In a programme note, Dr Gitte Marianne Hansen notes the importance of narrative voice and perspective in Murakami’s novel, as K’s awareness of his own narration forms a key part of the novel’s ideas about identity. It seems, therefore, an odd choice of a novel to adapt into a play, given that narrative is nearly always undramatic, and drama nearly always dialogic. This play seems stuck between a rock and a hard place, where its ideas about narrative are not taking hold because the play takes place in front of our own eyes, not solely through K’s narration, but its dramatic potential is not fully realised because of the quantity of narrative monologue.

Because of this, the production never seems to hang around a coherent centre, something which is vital to a writer as bizarre as Murakami. Director Melly Still has created some visual striking pieces of movement to illustrate the play’s more surreal moments, but they never quite state as much as we want them to. Similarly, Sonoko Obuchi’s cartoon illustrations that accompany the play via video are charming, droll and occasionally disturbing, but are not well integrated into the production, popping up with irregularity and without a sense of coherence to their appearances. The parts gesture towards a whole; the central performance by Millicent Wong as Sumire feels strangely remote, which might be intended to speak to Sumire’s disconnect from the world around her. Yet without a clear sense of theme, it contributes to an emotionally bland narrated surrealism.

Credit: Alex Brenner

As with many adaptations of famous novels to the stage, I find myself returning to the question – why the stage? This is not meant as a churlish or facetious jibe, but a genuine question. The team behind Sputnik Sweetheart have worked hard to pull out the central questions of the story, but a story about perspective, on the stage, where everything is presented directly to the audience, is a round peg in a square hole.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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