Evelyn – Southwark Playhouse, London

Reviewer: Dan English

Writer: Tom Ratcliffe

Director: Madelaine Moore

 How would you react if an accomplice to an infamous child murderer had perhaps suddenly found themselves in your home town under a new identity? That is just one of the questions posed by writer Tom Ratcliffe in his thought-provoking new play Evelyn, which has opened at London’s Southwark Playhouse.

Ratcliffe’s script, directed by Madelaine Moore, places us in sleepy Walton-On-The-Naze, a seaside village with not a lot going on when mysterious liar Sandra (Nicola Harrison) arrives with just a bag, and a whole load of baggage, at the door of pensioner Jeanne (Rula Lenska). Weaving the unravelling of Sandra’s past with the ferocious hysteria of the local Facebook group hunting a supposed criminal in the midst, Ratcliffe’s production quickly turns into an eerie crime thriller, inspired by similar real life events. It is a production which forces you to question the vigilante mindset our Facebook generation has, where one post or one suspicious photo can leave anyone vulnerable, and where the rule of the mob online to enforce social justice can have dangerous consequences.

Harrison is simply electric as the troubled Sandra, and looks at ease bringing out her unsettling and unusual nature. It is clear that there is something off about her, but Harrison draws this out from Ratcliffe’s writing through subtle facial expressions such as a simple smirk or pained look. Whether Sandra really is the criminal Evelyn Mills is the question on everybody’s lips as the piece unfolds, and Harrison draws you in to feel sorry for this character who vehemently maintains her innocence, yet, in odd little quirks, twitches and flickers of the eye, keeps you guessing.

Lenska’s Jeanne is an enigmatic pensioner battling loneliness, a dementia diagnosis and the threat of eviction when her lettings advert leads Sandra to her door. Jeanne’s outrageous character draws the humour of the production and Lenska thrives in this role. The bond which forms between Jeanne and Sandra, in the absence of Jeanne’s estranged daughter Harriet, is established quickly and helps to drive the narrative forward, yet it also serves to unpack concepts such as domestic violence and child abuse, which Ratcliffe does not shy away from in his script. Lenska’s ability to switch from a foul-mouthed pensioner to vulnerable old lady is impressive, and the character’s own battles with her mind, driven by her guilt about her daughter, serve as an interesting subplot to the piece.

Yvette Boakye and Office Okbegbe are brother and sister Laura and Kevin respectively, and are two siblings caught up in the furore once suspicions about Evelyn and Sandra develop. Boakye’s nurse Laura, who suspects Sandra from the start, is deliberately antagonistic, which creates an interesting dynamic between the two characters as her anger and aggression leave you feeling for Sandra, despite what she is perhaps accused of doing. On the other hand, Okbegbe’s simple but slightly dim Kevin becomes Sandra’s love interest. Okbegbe works well with the one-dimensional approach his character has, although the dialogue for his character feels a little awkward at times, but the pair works well to bring together a central conflict which serves as a microcosm for the wider frustrations and fear of the town.

What perhaps makes this production so engaging is its social commentary. The piece, set in a seaside town, is interspersed with a Punch and Judy show, which acts a little like a chorus in pulling the threads of the production together. The cast double as characters from Punch and Judy, and this offers some disturbing comic relief in the piece. Ratcliffe’s interweaving of the Punch and Judy interludes, coupled with some bizarre yet all too believable Facebook posts from community groups, which we can all identify with, force you to stop and think about Ratcliffe’s wider message.

Finally, Michael Crean’s sound design, which throws together Phil Collins and sea shanties into haunting melodies, throws us not just into this sleepy seaside resort, but into the horrors within it too. The musical choices work well to complement Ratcliffe’s critiquing eye of society and the way justice seems to work in an online forum.

Evelyn is an unflinching look at the violent impact and horror social media and the rumours it creates can have. This is a captivating production which flirts between dark comedy and tragedy while posing a very real dilemma about the way society reacts to the rumours that grow on social media and the mob rule and justice that can grow online. Aided by the intimacy of the theatre space and the small yet powerful cast, Ratcliffe’s work is an insightful social commentary and a delicious piece of theatre.

Runs until 16 July 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

A thought-provoking commentary

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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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