Edinburgh Fringe 2010
This harrowing monologue attracted a storm of publicity when it premiered in 1992, not least because the true story of a mother killing her baby to save him from an abusive father was scripted by a woman whose own life sentence for killing her mother was overturned on medical grounds. The sensational truths which underpinned that original award-winning play and production, now give way to a competent but not entirely convincing revival.
A one-woman show, Jordan opens with actress Allie Croker fixing members of the audience with prolonged direct eye contact as she begins to tell the dark fairy story of Rumpelstiltskin. What follows is the narrative from her courthouse cell of the true story of Shirley Jones, a young woman from Morecambe who falls accidentally pregnant by Dave and then suffers his emotional and physical abuse until he leaves her with a parting gift – a knife slash across her cheek.
Later, however, he returns with his new partner and threatens (like Rumpelstiltskin) to take the baby away because she is inadequate as a mother. A spoiler alert is hardly necessary given the publicity surrounding this play when it first appeared, but if you don’t already know what the play is about, skip to the next paragraph. Shirley’s recourse, after a seaside walk where she abandons the pram they will no longer need, is to drink a bottle of vodka gulp down four packets of aspirin, and then to save her baby from his father she picks up a pillow and… she can’t remember what happened after that. Had the baby been a month younger she would have been tried for infanticide and maybe got six years, but now she is awaiting the verdict of her trial for murder and faces a possible life sentence.
The tragic dilemma the play explores is whether a life sentence of freedom, after what she has suffered and knowing what she has done, would be worse than a life in prison, where she has observed in other lifers the effect of the years slowly draining lives and souls away so that death by hanging would be a preferable release.
The story is, of course, harrowing and the play carefully draws you slowly in to its horrific core, switching between Shirley’s observations on life in prison, her narrative of her sad history and occasional returns to the story of Rumpelstiltskin. She also addresses her dead baby, Jordan, as if he is still alive – "I’m not worried about talking to you" – and these moments are handled with a directness and lack of self-pity which characterises much of the script. The writing also has some wry humour: "Get on your bike and look for a job, the man said. So I did – blowjobs £5 a time." Given the extreme awfulness of this true life story of a modern Medea, it is remarkable that Jordan avoids sensationalism and manages to confer a dignity on a wasted life which was denied any in reality The play deservedly won writing awards for its coauthors, Anna Reynolds and Moira Buffini, who also won an award for her original performance in the role of Shirley.
I remember the buzz around this show when it first appeared. With just the occasional note of discomfort that most of the publicity focussed on the awful tragedy of writer Anna Reynold’s own history – her conviciton for killing her own mother while suffering a post-natal condition was only quashed after she had served two years of a life sentence – the response from critics and punters was almost universally ecstatic, and I was disappointed not to be able to get a ticket during its sell-out run. But that was back in 1992.
In this revival, despite the confidence of her opening – and I love seeing performers with the guts to actually look into their audience’s eyes – and the assuredness of her acting technique throughout, Allie Croker somehow doesn’t quite manage to bring her character to life.
Against a backdrop of two large screens splashed in blood red, barefoot in a simple dress, with only a table and chair, some magazines, a yoghurt, a bottle of water, a beige leather jacket and a yellow handbag as her props, a few overloud sound effects and some under-impressive lighting changes, the focus is entirely on the actress to hold our attention, and while it may have been festival fatigue I don’t think I was alone in drifting towards the end.
Something in her performance stopped me from ever forgetting I was watching what may be a very good actress doing a reasonable job with an exceptional script. Perhaps there was some repetitiveness in her facial expressions, or her hand gestures or her habit of taking a few tottering steps and then suddenly stopping, but mostly I think it was the way she delivered the lines. Although to my southern ear her vowel sounds seemed consistently if non-specifically northern, I wondered throughout whether the accent was really her own or whether she had learned and adopted a particular lilt, and the over-use of this pattern prevented it from ever sounding fully authentic?
Or maybe it is that she just looks too clean cut to have lived the story she was telling. Allie Croker is slim and pretty with the bright-eyed, hopeful look of a youth with everything to live for – too fresh and unsoiled to have yet experienced child birth or been prematurely aged by a life of dashed dreams and the soul-crushing abuse she describes.
Technically the production needs some fine tuning. Lighting changes are used to change the scene from the prison cell from where she now speaks to the locations of the story, but these are often too subtle to really alter the visual picture. The sound effects – waves, gulls and broken bottles – are all played consistently much too loud, but both of these faults may be due to the technical compromises one has to make when squeezing a show into the Edinburgh fringe factory, even at the Assembly Rooms.
At the end the lights dim and then snap up quickly and the actress herself somewhat hurriedly tells us the true verdict and its aftermath. The impact should have been devastating, and perhaps was when the story and play were new, but I was not alone among the audience in simply applauding and then making my way to the exit from just another play. There is little fundamentally wrong with this production, and I suspect that, while she does well enough in a role for which she is not ideal casting, Allie Croker is an actress who we will see much more of in the future, probably playing a posher part in some costume tv mini-series.
But one wonders what exactly was the point of bringing this competent revival back to the fringe?