The Gift – GRAEae

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Director: Cheryl Martin

Writer: Leanna Benjamin

Staged by Graeae, a theatre company committed to promoting the work and performance of disabled and D/deaf actors, The Gift examines a family trying to answer an impossible question.

The audio-description at the start of the play sets the scene. The characters introduce themselves: Shirley Winters (played by Olivier-winning Sharon D Clarke) and her daughter, Jasmine (Stage Debut nominee, Saida Ahmed). They are, as we might expect during a pandemic, at home. Sitting in on their Zoom call to each other, it is clear from the outset that this is not a casual check-in.

Shirley is calling to wish her daughter a happy birthday. She surprises Jasmine with the discovery of her childhood teddy bear. Jasmine is 30, disabled and has just moved out of the family home. Jasmine tries to hide her irritation as her mum sings a nursery song. She angrily holds a positive pregnancy test up to the screen. We discover that the pregnancy is the result of a sexual assault by one of Jasmine’s carers.

The Gift – written by Leanna Benjamin – examines the choices Jasmine will have to make, made all the more difficult by her mother’s opposition to anything but termination.

Trying to capture something as emotionally complex as the mother-daughter relationship in a 15-minute play may seem like a tough ask, but Clarke and Ahmed create a bond that is recognisably authentic. Benjamin illustrates a generational divide, as Shirley moves from tenderness to fury – at herself, at Jasmine’s situation. Saida Ahmed is excellent as the daughter caught between the desire to maintain her independence, but being reliant on a support system fraying at the edges.

Filmed side by side, director Cheryl Martin presents this duologue without pause or respite, ramping up the intensity of the narrative. We are piecing the story together in minutes, and the connection between Jasmine and Shirley is established quickly and assuredly. Even in the midst of a crisis, the women are still able to laugh. Recounting her own experience of being pregnant with Jasmine, the two share a family anecdote – comforting and very funny. It is the sudden change in tone, from dark to light that can only work within a family dynamic.

The Gift addresses Jasmine’s assault in plain terms, and Ahmed plays these moments with real sensitivity. Benjamin merges the personal with the political throughout, and it is a particularly upsetting moment as we learn that Jasmine’s assault was caused by a staffing shortage. Benjamin lets a residual anger burn through the rest of the play, as we consider the implications of what has happened to Jasmine.

With a one-scene play there can be the temptation to pack in every issue, every idea. But The Gift leans away from this, deciding to focus on a few themes in depth. The impact of this production is intense: you really do feel immersed in the Winters’ world, and their dilemma. The refusal to editorialise Jasmine’s situation psychologically defines the play: resolution and acceptance may eventually take place, but it will be off screen and beyond our reach. Resisting our need for closure, The Gift leaves us with no last word, and no final say.

Available here

The Reviews Hub Score

Genuinely moving

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The Reviews Hub - London

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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