All the Lights Are On is at Summerhall as part of the From Start to Finnish showcase, presenting the best in Finnish performing arts this Fringe. A world premiere from young Finnish playwright, Kaisa Lundan, the play introduces 30-year-old Emmy; married, with her life happily stretching ahead of her. That is, until she is diagnosed with brain cancer. Her husband, mother, and godfather struggle to help her to deal with the diagnosis and find it difficult to terms with what the diagnosis means for each of them. At a broader level, the play wrestles with the difference between certainty and optimism, the pain and the pleasure of loving and losing someone, the gap they leave and how you can ever hope to cope.
This is a taut, sometimes funny, thought-provoking script that’s full of compassion. Importantly, Lundan doesn’t flinch from the disturbing horror of symptoms that erode a sense of self, long before the body ceases to function. She beautifully depicts both Emmy’s confusion and the relentless patience needed from those looking after her, as she repeatedly struggles to remember huge swatches of their previous lives together. Director Julian Garner serves up a well-crafted, nicely choreographed production, using sound design by Angelica Araceli Saludes Estevez to accentuate the growing gloom.
For the Fringe run, the show has been cast with Scottish actors. Ashley Smith does a great job with Emmy, switching swiftly between her formerly sunny self and the symptoms displayed by an increasingly unwell young woman. Ali Watt is excellent as her husband, expressing his anxiety, guilt, and exasperation. At the same time, what shines through is the love on which their relationship was founded. Wendy Elizabeth Murray is a patiently optimistic mother, clutching onto blueberry juice like a talisman in the face of all the medical evidence. Finally, Mark McDonnell as Jani is both solicitious godfather and a fabulous quiz show host.
A grim subject based on Lundan’s own experiences with her father, All the Lights Are On is a contemplative reflection on how families cope with the thing they should never have to cope with: the death of a child. It’s a carefully orchestrated piece of theatre that gripped the audience for just under an hour. For all the obviously awful subject matter, the attention to the progress of the symptoms left less time for the audience to build an emotional connection with the characters. As a statement about the undeniably awful nature of brain cancer, however, this play packs a punch.