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FringeReview UK 2016

The Sewing Group

Royal Court

Genre: Drama, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs


Low Down

E. V. Crowe’s latest play continues an association with the Royal Court that began with her first full-length work Kin in 2010. Stewart Laing both directs and designs this premiere. Mike Brookes’ lighting often cuts to black, and Christopher Shutt’s sound begins with a harpsichord’s excerpted preludes which slowly distort elsewhere.


Stewart Laing both directs and designs this premiere of E. V. Crowe’s latest play, an association with the Royal Court that began with her first full-length work Kin in 2010. Mike Brookes’ lighting often cuts to black , and Christopher Shutt’s sound begins with a harpsichord’s excerpted preludes which glacially distort elsewhere.


A bare interior of untreated wood encloses three black-clad women from the 1700s sewing. A candle gutters; it’s a bleak simple life. C a newcomer has been brought to E her aunt’s village and joins in the sewing. Her interrogatives are painstakingly drawn out, a brief question ‘what kind of crops do you farm… what county is it?’ seem disembodied in their un-attachment from the life around her. As if she’s a ghost. There’s frequently a silence, and black out, where time passes in a set of iterations. When C’s asked about herself she’s equally unforthcoming and our sympathies shift imperceptibly. A fart brings momentary warmth as it were.


F, a pastor – the only male role – notes the shift of powers. C’s aunt E has arrived to tell her of herself; C seems to possess no memory. But C has a will to direct; soon she’s asked to suggest a colour (red, expensive) and after a further newcomer D arrives bereaved of a husband, C suggests quilts. ‘It’s within’ allows F, and the quilt movement starts, first to create an enwrapping memory from the dead husband’s clothes as consolation for D. C however loads each quilt with symbolism, self-betrayals, as if she can read them all.


Here the play unravels deftly, through subtle use of language – and indeed footwear from the start. It’s just as clear that C isn’t quite who she seems, and disturbs the community she’s sought succour from, displacing the very rhythm with a command structure of quilts and self-betrayals taking on more the inquisitor than enquirer. She makes an accusation of theft.


It’s important not to spoil the balance of this play with reveals, though they might be guessed at. What’s more important is to hint at how well Crowe has imagined a community where one member has a mental capacity for one forensic pathway to dominate all thinking, and by association how our environment shapes our very capacity of thinking and mind-sets. It’s a play with resonances beyond the references it sets itself, and the occasional criticism that it packs too much in its seventy minutes is I respectfully submit, wrong.


Fiona Glascott as the withdrawn yet explosive C conjures the narrow vertices of a trapped woman. Nancy Crane’s E conjures empathy and sudden dispatch, and F the softly Scottish pastor reins in whatever authority he enjoys in an attempt to divert C from her wayward inability to mesh. Allison O’Donnell’s D, both victim and saviour of C’s wrath suggests she too doesn’t fit the role of sewer, is in exile. Jane Hazelgrove’s forthright A and Sarah Niles’ homely B provide a stabilising humanizing double act that again later shifts.


This is a bold quietly brilliant play asking questions of how we are thought, not think and how that impacts on what we take for feeling, as well as a pattern of mind, distorted imperceptibly. Its short scenes suggest the disruptive effects encountered in Florian Zeller’s The Father; but the trope is more elusive than dementia, and even more existentially troubling.