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FringeReview UK 2016

Low Down

Nathaniel Martello-White’s Torn premieres at Royal Court Jerwood’s Theatre Upstairs. Boasting a deceptively simple design like a community centre, designer Ultz has plastic chairs scattered around the edges for a reduced capacity, the same design chairs utilized – perhaps Ultized – stacked by actors. Twyman’s directive clarity is such that you can almost see connections lasered between the characters then snapping off to black.


Richard Twyman premieres Nathaniel Martello-White’s nine-hander Torn at Royal Court Jerwood’s Theatre Upstairs, in a deceptively simple design like a community centre where audience and actors blend. Ultz has plastic chairs scattered around the edges for a reduced capacity, the same design chairs utilized – perhaps Ultzed – stacked by actors. Upstage right there’s a kettle facility, neighbouring audience members like me.


Angel locks the door: no-one gets out till her family trauma’s explained to her by family mostly termed for instance ‘1st Twin’ (Angel’s mother in fact) ‘Brotha’, ‘Couzin’. Two more two aunts just lettered (one, Aunty L with a PhD.) amplify the family’s toxic smear of blinkered witness and anomie. Family’s a functional play of vectors, power-lines shot back and forth, faltering, re-connecting, snapping. Swerving through memory, switchbacks blink through wincing accusations Angel throws out, sometimes snagging herself in her stories.


There’s a heightened formal language too. Martello-White refuses sheer naturalism: functional rather than personal names are also labelled. But it’s sometimes kerned with south London. You realize articulation services clarity. There’s memory-lapses, favouritism, children’s games prefiguring the dark.


Years on, few want to revisit what in fact’s an ex-family. Dead Nanny once ruled the Brooks – invoking her heightens tensions – and though matriarchies privilege boys as Aunty L says this trope fizzles into how Angel was failed, sold off. A slavery lesson later enunciated by her mother’s new partner chillingly describes the lot of household slaves, ‘lighter-skinned’ like Angel. James Hillier’s Steve is articulate, a laid-back racist in sneering control.


Angel’s the youngest from a mixed-race family whose mother 1st Twin has denied her (as is made clear) three times: in post-natal depression, abandonment to abuse Angel later retracts, and disposal of her and her mixed-race brother when Steve – one of the few named characters – moves in, and 1st Twin has his children (not involved). But has Steve caused damage, or was it always just sleeping?


As 1st Twin Indra Ové’s brazen, shifty, in denial but can still silence Angel. Adelle Leonce anchors Angel’s volatile unpredictability in a superb register of loss, calibrating her response to various family members at zig-zag stages of her life. If she can raise a mirror, Brotha’s Jamael Westman etches a howl of dysfunction Angel can’t call back, let alone invoke.


Aunty L the intellectual is only too willing to take Angel yet feels powerless later. Lorna Brown conveys a diffidence that falters without losing sight of her knowing Angel’s not hers to defend. But 2nd Twin produces a son Couzin whose stellar artistic career marks here a shorthand to empathy. He alone offers a redemptive understanding, born partly through his own experiences of peer rejection. Osy Ihile brings out the keen sincerity of a character without easy flaws, whose occasional fury lends heft.


Aunty J’s criminal partner gives her a facelift and character blankness (Kirsty Bushell, consummately, never obviously smug); 2nd Twin angles for Angel then throws her weight behind 1st Twin. Though age is roughly calibrated elsewhere, quick-witted Franc Ashman’s complicit 2nd Twin being younger than 1st Twin, reflects deliberate casting though at first it’s disorienting.


Martello-White shows that introducing Steve’s opposite in Brian, an older male keen to resolve and heal, we’ve someone too far outside the process; it’s a deft recognition of family bafflement and rings painfully true. Brian’s own resources have been stretched beyond knowledge or allies: Roger Griffiths catches this agony too.


This drama’s ritual linguistically and dramatically pares itself to the kind of dysfunction we all share a hem of darkness in. Twyman’s directive clarity is such that you can see almost connections lasered between the actors then snapping off to black. Martello-White’s clever touching-in of few specifics allows this ninety-minute piece to amplify a wincing universality.