Writer: Abigail Hood
Director:Glen Walford and Kevin Tomlinson
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
In the middle of a very personal tragedy, help can come from the most unexpected sources and you might find a lasting friendship in the last place you would think to look. Abigail Hood’s new play Spiral, in which she also stars, has its debut at the Park Theatre and deals with the seemingly unlikely but meaningful relationship between a middle-aged teacher and a young escort he hires, as they both face absence and loneliness.
Missing for more than seven years, Tom and Gill have yet to come to terms with the loss of their daughter, expecting either to find her body or hear her walk through the door any day. Growing apart, Tom hires Leah to pretend to be her, recreating their final conversation and an entirely platonic friendship develops between them. As Tom’s professional life and Leah’s controlling boyfriend spiral out of control, they discover the cost of their improbable friendship.
In an hour and 45 minutes, including a 20-minute interval, Hood’s play takes quite a broad approach to examining all kinds of male-female relationships, and isn’t afraid to confront issues of domestic violence, male toxicity and the assumptions we make about age. The central pairing of the 20-something Leah and 50-something Tom creates an interesting dynamic that opens-out the drama, challenging our assumptions about the assumed nature of their interaction and where common ground can exist.
It begins as a reasonably conventional psychological-swap as Tom projects his love for his daughter onto Leah, wanting to protector her from Mark as a way to make peace with his failure to save his daughter, while Leah seeks comfort in Tom’s essential decency as reaction against her own absent father and abusive step-father. But, in the Second Act, the friendship goes beyond this becoming more credible and enduring, even sweet, as they learn about and become involved in the wider circumstances of each other’s lives.
Spiral’s construction is a little less successful as series of quite short scenes establish three competing strands within the overall narrative; the burgeoning friendship directly resulting from the missing daughter, a sexual misconduct accusation made against Tom by a pupil and Leah’s violent homelife with Mark. There is never enough time to really delve equally into all three so the second in particular is never entirely believable – Tom is in every way a decent, kind, thoughtful man, but this story muddies the waters without ever resolving the issue; is the audience meant to admire him or believe he is as fallible as all the men referenced in the play?
This is compounded by the thinly-sketched character of his wife, Gill, played by Tracey Wilkinson, who instantly believes her husband is guilty not just of inappropriate conduct with a schoolgirl, but her mind rapidly runs to the possibility of Tom attacking their own daughter, as well as Gill’s absolute certainty that he’s sleeping with Leah. Gill’s only purpose in the play is to voice these concerns, but why his wife of decades would immediately reach these conclusions doesn’t make sense when the audience has only ever seen the sensitive side of Tom.
As Leah, Hood convincingly suggests the cycle of fear and attraction that sustains her relationship with Mark, and it often becomes uncomfortable viewing for the audience as she succumbs to his will, while suffering verbal and physical abuse. Co-director Kevin Tomlinson’s Mark is a little too stagey and lacks a feeling of uncontainable rage, danger and menace in the delivery, but he manages to convey an unsettling sense of the power he wields.
Adam Morris’ Tom is a calm presence, quietly despairing in his need to reach out that makes his plight and the growing misconception around him more sympathetic. Hood’s writing is pleasingly free of unnecessary exposition, and conversations slowly reveal the information the audience needs to know. Spiral feels like a good first draft but needs a greater focus on the friendship between Leah and Tom, which, across longer scenes, will show us why their unusual connection helps to save them both.
Runs Until 1 September 2018 | Image: Contributed