Writer: Caryl Churchill
Director: David Mercatali
Reviewer: Kris Hallett
It can never be claimed that Caryl Churchill rests on her laurels. Being described as ‘Britain’s greatest living playwright’ would surely give you the right to sit back with feet up and cigar to hand and churn out well-made plays that can easily be consumed and appreciated by a boulevard West End crowd. Instead, she pushes the edges of what a play can be, gently to start with, checking what it can take before bursting right through by the end.
She is an experimentalistpar excellenceandBlue Hearther 1997 collection of two one-act works, given its first major revival here, is, on a viewing 20 years later, as influential to the modern writer as Osborne’sLook Back In Angerwas to the angry young men of the 50s and 60s.Its scenarios at least feel familiar. In the first,Heart’s Desire, a family are around a dinner table awaiting their daughter’s return from travelling around Australia. The second,Blue Kettle,a conman tricks five women into thinking he is the son they have rejected. Yet these straightforward scenarios soon turn into their own thing.
InHeart’s Desire,the scene around the table keeps refracting, veering into alternative scenarios, ridiculous, surprising, sometimes dangerous. It dares you to run to keep up with its constant left field turns but rewards you the effort. At one point a rabble of school children invades the stage, causing carnage with their toys and gleeful anarchy. A minute later, it is bullets causing the destruction as armed men shoot the house up. It leads to laughter with an edge. Yet each pathway they turn down leads to more revelations about the family, about the secrets and long-felt resentments that are underneath the sheen of respectable family life. Its final moments have a terrifying pull.
There are fewer laughs inBlue Kettlebut it also feels deeper, more exquisitely painful. A virus infects the words, the words of the title dropping into sentences, almost imperceptible at first, but gradually taking over so that the meaning is gibberish but the feelings behind them are painfully real. It feels as though Churchill is taking aim at the stiff upper lip of the British, hiding our actual feelings behind the words. Subtext, not the words is what counts here. We see the pain these women have lived with and now the equal parts fear and joy as they are reintroduced to their (presumed) son.
It is a play that rewards multiple viewings with its layers of detail and it is given an equally attuned production by David Mercatali. It thrums with detail from Angela Davies’ at first glance simple set that is too small for comfort and Max Pappenheim’s sound design that chimes with ideas and ominous rumbles of a world crumbling around it.
The performances are equally as full of these details, Alex Beckett’s double alcoholic brother and damaged con-man clashes with Andy De La Tour’s father and then supportive husband, while Mona Goodwin provides cheery goodwill as daughter and lover. Meanwhile, Churchill provides lovely roles for women of a certain vintage and is rewarded with terrific turns from Amanda Boxer as the Aunt trying to keep the peace and Amelda Brown as the frustrated mother, while Maroussia Frank makes a striking impression as a university don who can only stay matter-of-fact with the past.
The expectation is may be of a low-key Churchill work but the reality is a key work in her development, where her experimentation reveals something incredibly truthful and humane and proves that she sits on top of the ivory throne with the other pretenders only being able to look up.
Runs until 1 October 2016 | Image: The Other Richard