Vault Festival: Essence


Crescent at The Vaults, Leake Street Tunnels, Waterloo.


21-23 Feb 2020.


Written by Sarah Henley, directed by Tori Allen-Martin. Performed by Timothy O’Hara and Nina Barker-Francis.


Laquaya loves hip-hop, feminism, Peperami … Elyot is reclusive, eccentric and probably quite lonely. Watch this slightly odd couple go on a humorous and heart-warming journey from denial to acceptance …


Essence is the new collaboration from writer Sarah Henley and director Tori Allen-Martin. You may recall them from the Young Vic’s Tree, which they were involved in creating, but for which they received insufficient credit.

A two-hander about two lonely people and a long-held secret, this play starts with Elyot doing his daily routines, which are signalled by an repetitive alarm and constant changes of record. I wasn’t sure at first what this signified, other than to signal that this man was odd – his room does that on its own, with wall charts of discovered dictionary words and marked off “life in weeks”.

Publicity image of Essence
Publicity image of Essence

When Laquaya, a schoolgirl with boundless energy, climbs through Elyot’s window we think she might be a burglar, but it seems she is in need of answers reaching back beyond the start of her life. She’s driven by music and curiosity, yet underneath her teenage bravado there’s a little girl searching for a figure she can follow.

With an especially strong performance from Nina Baker-Francis, whose sunny smile and flashes of hurt illumate the roomy stage of the Crescent, Essence brings in the sunshine to illuminate Elyot’s “whiter shade of pale” (one of the records in his daily rotation).

Timothy O’Hara plays the tightly-wound Elyot with skill, with building frustration when his carefully crafted day of exercise, improvement, meal shakes and rest are interrupted. You wonder if he ever ventured out into the open air, regardless of his model-making and bite-size language classes.

Timothy O'Hara and Nina Baker-Francis in Essence
Timothy O’Hara and Nina Baker-Francis in Essence

I’d trim the opening scene and invest more time for Elyot and Laquaya to get to know each other, but this play ends up as a sweet and likeable piece of drama, an enjoyable hour with both strong writing and direction.

It’s a pity the sightlines at the venue are rather poor at some points, and the moments when music almost drowns out speech could be tweaked so words can be fully heard, but these are small points and easy to fix.

Judgement – Wow, Meow, or Furred Brow?

It’s a Meow for Essence. I enjoyed it very much and it doesn’t have much further to go before it becomes a fully-fledged piece, but in its current form it takes a while to establish the central relationship between the characters, and doesn’t give them quite enough scope for development.

LouReviews received a complimentary ticket to see Essence. Images courtesy of the play’s social media.