Torn – Jerwood Upstairs, Royal Court, London

Writer: Nathaniel Martello-White
Director: Richard Twyman
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

“There is no us! There’s no family! There’s just memories…” What actually constitutes a family, is it just biology, a clump of genetics and shared blood that mean you’re forever connected to this network of other people or are families made, socially constructed groups defined by mutual support and shared experiences? And can any family survive the ongoing effects of betrayal?

Nathaniel Martello-White’s new play,Torn, part of the Jerwood New Playwrights Programme at the Royal Court, considers how a big family secret not only fosters denial and deception but widens cracks that already existed. Angel has gathered her family of parents, uncles, aunts, a cousin and sibling together to hear the truth, but during the heightened discussion years of angst, pride and unreasonable expectation of all kinds is unleashed, leaving everyone unsure of where this leaves them as a family.

Martello-White’s play is a fast-paced and intricate piece of theatre that layers multiple conversations, time periods and emotions on top of one another. Initially, this can be quite difficult to fathom as the ensemble deliver rapid-fire and occasionally mumbled dialogue which makes it difficult for the audience to keep track of who everyone is and what they’re angry about. But after a period of adjustment, you settle into Martello-White’s style, feeling the ebb and flow of tension as the chaos of group scenes is mingled with more pointed individual interactions.

His overarching interest seems to be in the relationship between mothers and their offspring, and Torn portrays a variety of these interactions, from Angel and her mother 1st Twin’s (Indra Ove) frosty connection damaged by years of denial and refusal to believe Angel’s allegations, to 2nd Twin’s (Franc Ashman) pushy and proud relationship with her son Couzin. Throughout we see the two generations at war, with the elders preferring to bury their heads in the sand rather than deal with the consequences, but Martello-White gives this interesting context with reports of their own childhood with the unseen and ashamed Nanny teaching them to fear the colour of their skin.

While Angel’s tale is cleverly conceived and played with emotional force by Adelle Leonce who finely treads a line between Angel as a victim and a troublemaker as her mother supposes, some of the other sub-plots could be expanded to give a greater sense of why the family choses denial for so long. Four generations are discussed in the play, so it would be interesting to understand more about the original upbringing of 1st and 2nd Twin and Aunty L (Lorna Brown), as well as the children of Angel and Brotha, while the evident tension between male characters Couzin (Osy Ikhile) and Brotha (Jamael Westman), and with their absent fathers, could add deeper layers. Martello-White’s text is a little verbose so some of this could be repurposed to bring out more of these conflicts.

The ensemble performances are largely impressive. There’s a slightly shaky start as lines aren’t cut-off as rapidly as they should be, with some actors too conscious they’ve reached the end of their line even though it’s mid-sentence, but the tension builds impressively and director Richard Twyman moves characters around the circle to give the audience a chance to see things from multiple perspectives.

“Truth is overrated,” Martello-White writes, and his play exposes the damaging effect that hiding from the truth can have on a family, exacerbating pre-existing tensions and creating new ones. Torn shows that families are as much a biological connection as they are a social one, and when all the secrets are out, you can’t live without them.

Runs until 15 October 2016 | Image: Contributed

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