Writers: Brandon Force, Nicole Palomba and Audrey Thayer
Director: Tracy Collier
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Who we are and where we come from still matters more than we’d care to admit. In some circles, having the right lineage will still open all kinds of doors, while for others a shared cultural and religious heritage defines whole communities. But as each generation spawns the next and times change, reinforcing that heritage becomes increasingly complicated. The Laundry premiering at The Drayton Arms wonders at what point a natural desire to know the past becomes the unbearable weight of expectation.
Initially conceived as three one-act plays, writers Brandon Force, Nicole Palomba and Audrey Thayer have combined their vision to tell the story of three generations of the same family. Born in Russia on the cusp of the Revolution, matriarch Ava and her sister Anina end-up working in a Gulag laundry where the latter has a baby with a prison guard and sacrifices herself to save her family. Years on Ava has raised baby Anna as her own, but an irreproachable distance grows between them until Anna’s own daughter Hannah comes to find her grandmother and they attempt to put the family line back together.
The Laundry is a play that asks a lot of questions about the meaning and influence of family life. Across two acts, this 80-minute play examines the complexity of maternal relationships, and although its ultimate message is rather mixed and the Russian Doll metaphor a little heavy-handed, the overall effect is an interesting discussion about the role of women as parents, and the expectation that motherhood should subsume individuality.
Director Tracy Collier effectively creates a sense of changing time and place, moving the action from a constricting prison laundry room, through various countries to Ava’s care home and even an other-worldly neverland where Hannah and Ava try to find peace with the now departed Anna. Ghost scenes are always a little tricky and while this one successfully veers away from becoming too ethereal, choosing a normal conversation style, despite Hannah’s protestations about being the last Doll, the eventual ending seems to contradict her desire for independence.
Character is also a little thin so as plot details are rushed over and time compressed, it becomes more difficult to develop any sympathy for the three women. This is particularly problematic for Nicola Palomba’s Anna whose main appearance is in a rather irrelevant conversation with a stranger in a bar before taking the same drastic action as her mother Anina – events we are told rather than shown and with similar themes to Alice Birch’s 2017 play Anatomy of a Suicide. Palomba does her best with the role, particularly as a slightly defensive ghost, but her story and the extent to which concealed knowledge about her past affected her decisions needs to be further fleshed-out.
As Hannah, Verity Williams has more to do but her bitterness towards her mother and husband are not fully explained, while another random encounter in a bar takes the story on an unnecessary tangent. Williams makes it clear that Hannah’s anger covers a brittle shell but there is more to say about why she needs to talk to her mother’s ghost and what happens in the gap between the final two scenes to shift her perspective.
The most interesting part of the play is Ava’s original story told partly to her nurse (Andrew Hodson in a range of male roles and accents) and partly to the audience directly. The vivid recreation of life for Ava and her Anina told by Fiona Watson’s older Ava and dramatized by the other actors is full of engaging scenes of Russian life, but only the smallest reference to 1917 suggests the era of revolution, whereas more historical framing would reinforce the path Ava’s life took and why she needed to conceal so much from her family.
Any play with a title as innocuous as The Laundry is sure to take the audience to some pretty dark places, and Force, Palomba and Thayer begin their story in one of the twentieth-century’s grimmest locations, and a sense of darkness, of some family secret unresolved, hangs over the rest of the play. Their ultimate message that every person is distinct and not just the next bit of an existing line is an interesting one, but despite The Laundry’s focus on identity we don’t spend enough time finding out who these women are.
Runs Until 21 July 2018 | Image: Contributed