A Double Bill Of Forbidden Love – Playground Theatre, London

Reviewer: John Cutler


Writer: Rena Brannan

Director: Anthony Biggs

Something Unspoken

Writer: Tennessee Williams

Director: Anthony Biggs

“There’s a monster under the bed” yells US First Lady Betty Ford, protagonist of Artefact, the initial and much the more interesting of the Playground Theatre’s A Double Bill Of Forbidden Love. The monster in question is a love letter, hidden amongst a pile of theatre programmes, written some 27 years earlier by Ford’s former female dance partner and roommate. Emotional, gin-sodden, slumped over a Washington DC bar, Ford reflects on a lifetime of characters and events and poses herself a central question: how might my life have been different had those words been spoken three decades before?

Artefact’s writer Rena Brannan, whose real-life wife Sophie Ward takes the role of Ford, draws inspiration for the piece from an unexplained nervous breakdown the protagonist suffered in 1965. This being a show about one of US politics’ most famous alcoholics, set designer Tara Kelly places a well-stocked bar stage-right (which offers an excellent free gin martini to audience members shortly before curtain-up).

The bar is an apt design choice, one of many in a show that makes great use of the Playground’s space and is almost immersive in the extent to which the lines between performers and audience are blurred. Brannan’s disjointed, non-linear narrative, which spans the decades from childhood dance classes to pre-war life in a New York City troupe to middle-aged political dinners, has the erratic and fractured feel of a mind under the influence. “I drink and then I then I stop in the morning” Betty tells us, which is as pithy a definition of a functioning alcoholic as you will find anywhere.

Brannan’s 25-minute piece leaves us wanting more; it feels underwritten, which is a shame, because what there is of it is great. Underwritten is not a term one would apply to Tennessee Williams’ lesbian closet drama Something Unspoken, the second of the double bill directed by Anthony Biggs. The piece simply will not give its characters a moment of silence. Chit-chat, music, the endless ringing of the phone; it all serves to drown out the suppressed lust that one character possesses for the other.

Amanda Waggott has enormous fun playing Cornelia, a wealthy Mississippi spinster who is desperate to be acclaimed Regent of the local chapter of the Confederate Daughters but is far too high and mighty to consider attending the nomination committee. By happenstance, it is 15 years since Cornelia’s secretary Grace (Sarah Lawrie who is excellent but a tad too young-looking to really carry off the character) joined the household. The former has bought the latter 15 roses and all she wants in return is a little display of emotion from her late middle-aged companion. Will Cornelia get either of the two things she so desires? Anticipate Southern Gothic melodrama en-route.

Runs until 30 September 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Sapphic forbidden love double bill.

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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