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Merit – The Drum, Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Writer : Alexandra Wood

Director : Jennie Darnell

Reviewer : Joan Phillips

Alexandra Wood’s new play takes the friction between rich and poor and turns the usual arguments, suspects and themes upside down.

Sofia has recently managed to get a well paid job as PA to a wealthy, successful city banker. She quickly finds herself defending her new employer to her family and friends. Her parents question how she got the job and her friends resent her success against their contrasting circumstances.

The play starts with the usual themes of haves and have nots, and the excesses of one at the expense of the other. The villains appear to be the ‘filthy bankers’. While this group congratulate themselves on their charitable donations, the others find themselves unemployed, risking eviction.

Sofia’s mother Patricia pressurises her daughter to make up for the ‘greed’ of her employers and prove her loyalty to her family and friends by supporting them. Sofia quickly finds herself paying rent to her friends to make up for their lack of income and then paying her parents’ mortgage when her father loses his job.

This short play is staged in Matthew Wright’s steeply terraced, semi-circular set with a glass, corporate high-rise towering above. The whole resembles a cross between the landscaped piazzas outside these commercial districts and a Greek amphitheatre. This sharply focuses the attention on the two performers. The overall effect from the towers above and the action set so deeply in the theatre is one of claustrophobic and tragic portents. Director Jennie Darnell and performers Lizzy Watts (Sofia) and Rebecca Lacey (Patricia) do a fantastic job. With only dialogue, direction and acting has to be really tight to keep the attention and tensions. The two are compelling as the mother and daughter; one adept at applying pressure, the other just as good at deflecting it.

As the pressure from the mother increases, the story takes an ominous turn. Next Patricia wants Sophia to pay for them all to go to a cousin’s wedding overseas. What started as a demonstration of family loyalty quickly turns to obvious emotional blackmail. The words “we love you” are pulled out as a weapon of extortion ever more frequently. Sofia’s mother quickly turns out to be the exploitative force in the play. Her frustration with her own material circumstances has turned into resentment and hatred. But it doesn’t stop there. Sofia’s mother wants the bankers to pay yet more.

But this is the where the play begins to fall short. What starts out looking like the usual tale of greedy bankers as villains takes an interesting turn and looks at family pressures that can be just as exploitative. In fact, it is possibly more pernicious, as they are disguised here as love and loyalty. It would be great to see Alexandra Wood pull this off but she doesn’t quite make it. It can be a little repetitive at times but the real weakness is the mother’s behaviour – it is just a little too incredible to be believed. It is a shame, as it would be good to see a new dimension to a very real contemporary issue about fairness and sharing in a complex society. There are obvious targets to scapegoat but the suggestion here of exploring the less obvious, hidden villain right in our own homes seems to be have been missed.

Runs until Saturday 14th February 2015 | Photo Steve Tanner

Writer : Alexandra Wood Director : Jennie Darnell Reviewer : Joan Phillips Alexandra Wood’s new play takes the friction between rich and poor and turns the usual arguments, suspects and themes upside down. Sofia has recently managed to get a well paid job as PA to a wealthy, successful city banker. She quickly finds herself defending her new employer to her family and friends. Her parents question how she got the job and her friends resent her success against their contrasting circumstances. The play starts with the usual themes of haves and have nots, and the excesses of one at…

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