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FringeReview UK 2019


Donmar Warehouse and Clean Break

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Experimental, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre, True-life

Venue: Donmar Warehouse


Low Down

Directed by Maria Aberg, designed by Rosie Elnile, the lighting by Jess Bernberg with sound design by Carolyn Downing, movement direction by Ayse Tashkiran and video design by Heta Multanen. Cat Beveridge is musical director and fight director’s Rachel Bown-Williams.


It’s hard not to feel Alice Birch is the most innovative playwright of her generation. Skimming the original 60-scene script of her second Clean Break commission {BLANK} premiered at NT Connections in 2018, there’s a hint of the fluid blink of later Caryl Churchill jostling with Birch’s earlier innovations.

But Birch’s own voice is also like no other. In this new production at the Donmar her new 100-scene script for Clean break’s 40th anniversary includes the 45-minute 68-page The Dinner Party, last-written though not last-acted here. Almost hommaging the iconic opening scene of Churchill’s 1982 Top Girls it’s even more like Birch too, laid out horizontally like the ground-breaking triplicate scenes in Birch’s 2017 Royal Court Anatomy of a Suicide.

100 scenes. Even this production had to start with only 30, and pared that to 22 in a 1 hour 55 minute traversal. {BLANK}’s potential is almost infinite; every new production should as Birch says surprise her. The many involving children only – legacy of the original NT Connections – have naturally not been selected; but a few with an admix of adults have been. Birch’s mission in her second Clean Break commission is clear. The damage continues to the next generation.

{BLANK}’s here directed by Maria Aberg, designed by Rosie Elnile, it’s a construct of window (one pane shatters in the second scene), moveable kitchen units, chairs and entrances with occasional additions like a long dinner table for that party. The backdrop with stairway and upper gantry suggesting upper levels and distance is inevitably helped by spot-lighting. This, by Jess Bernberg scours in occasional prison scenes, but the surprise is that relatively few are set there. Most are post-prison and some harrowingly, just before.

Thus the enveloping sound design by Carolyn Downing places things very quickly, etched in elsewhere by Cat Beveridge’s musical direction. Movement by Ayse Tashkiran comes to a head when 15 actors swirl on the stage bisected by the social divide of that table. Sparing use of video design by Heta Multanen attests to the essential starkness overall. and fight director Rachel Bown-Williams contains such scenes within a scrum of activity rather than some braggadocio affair sprawling near audience members.

Birch has divided up the text so the first 55 are primarily about children. This production’s weight centres (though not exclusively) on the adult world and rightly new scenes, which renders this virtually a world premiere.

Aberg’s rightly emphasized continuity too, linking discrete narratives together in new telling conjunctions, like ‘Application’ No. 61 and the subsequent ‘Blood’ No. 15, where Zaris-Angel Hator is told her application for a course has been successful, that her release will coincide with her baby’s normally being taken away now forestalled in her place a Mother and Baby Unit. Which is too far off to keep up contact with other children. birth. There is though a brief wordless aftermath.

Using the first names of actors as identifying characters, we’re exposed to a few journey, though not always in chronological order, and occasionally as in the (now) penultimate No. 95 ‘Blossom’, Joanna Horton provides a harrowing one-off about a mother who can’t quite recall to the psychotherapist how she came to kill her children or why Eventually ‘Joanna’ affirms it’s ‘Ending the suffering. Stopping the potential of any more pain. Wasn’t that the right thing to do in the end?’ Looking at the effect on children in so many of the other narratives, it’s a chillingly final solution to misery and damage handed on, sometimes resulting in death. This time at least we get it.

Nevertheless the greatest destruction is wrought at that very Dinner Party we find though near the end of the production is a prologue to a series of disasters culminating in ‘Transference’ (No. 66) an inexperienced case worker cynically dispatched to tell a mother her daughter’s hanged herself in prison, and whom we’ve last seen locked down shortly before in ‘Restrain’ 88th written but six from the end. The journey began in the third scene with that smashed window in No. 54’s ‘Cry’ where a daughter breaks in to her mother’s house for cash. Only later do we learn where this all started.

If Zainab Hasan traces one journey from that party, with Thusitha Jayasundera, there’s Kate O’Flynn’s trajectory of irritating with telling an unimpressed Jemima Rooper of her new boyfriend in the opening ‘Arms’ No. 57, badgering her children to like him in No. 52’s ‘Scar’ where ‘Kate’ denies having scalding tea thrown over her; then all too swiftly turning up at ‘Refuge’ No. 93 in flight from him with children but refused entry by a regretful Ayesha Antoine. And Sophia Brown simply asks for her TV to be taken away. She’s too expert at using it to electrocute herself.

‘Dinner Party’ started with the innocuous self-congratulating crowd of virtue-signalling professionals and ends just a little like the 1972 French film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, if with less bloody farce. A lawyer Kate O’Flynn brings her new girlfriend Shona Babayemi to what seems her mother’s house – Jackie Clune resides. Nearly the whole cast’s assembled, with their Berlin flats, head teaching travails, yoga, Jemima Rooper’s capacity to run round the table to show just how fit she is, Bolivian rain forests and charity work, oh and one orders some coke from two nice women one of whom – Clean Break company member Lucy Edkins – hilariously affirm when they get there that #MeToo has even filtered down to their work; though one guest ahs never heard of the movement. It’s a deeply skewed moment, just one in a series of after-shocks turned backwards since you realize what the outcome of this casual coke-ordering will result in. The poor Deliveroo driver – Ashan Rabheru – standing for ages till she’s noticed is almost transfixed for being ignored, but actually needs to relieve herself of something.

Relief’s the word. Blink and one newcomer though ensures you might miss it. In an increasingly explosive stripping-back of the cheery post #MeToo slaps on back and when that’s over strips back that vein to reveal how pernicious, not merely useless it is. ‘Not with any depth or complexity of feeling… I think you Say the right fucking things to one another… I think you Observe and Consume and Nourish yourselves with as much as the Awful as you can possibly stomach each day, in order to buy yourself the time and the life to do absolutely nothing of worth… I think you are making the world worse. Every single fucking day.’ We then discover what she has or hasn’t done upstairs. And in No. 20 ‘Smash’ what follows is as an astonishing scene as the child actor Taya Tower takes a hammer to what’s left.

If this dissection of left-liberal righteousness is final, the production’s brilliance lies in capping it with that terrifying ‘Blossom’ and capping it with ‘Salt’ 59th of the original 60 to be written originally and still a fine culmination, and the opposite of the affirmative ‘Magnolia’ No. 47 where healing visibly grows. You wonder if it’s connected to No. 35 ‘Story’ which hurtles out of bedtime stories into nightmare wishes. Edkins is again assailed, this time the ex-jailbird mother whom an alienated daughter visits with an excoriating lack of forgiveness. It’s a bleak, intimate coda sending a brutal chill: enough to make any left-liberal examine just what it needs to make things change; and if not, they deserve everything they get in Dinner Party.

There are powerful contributions from nearly everyone concerned, though some appear as cameos. Others make major contributions too In addition to the above-named, the cast also features Grace Doherty, Petra Letang, and child Leah Mondesir-Simmonds.

If by its very nature {BLANK} can’t resonate with the escorché intimacy and damage of Anatomy of a Suicide, it’s clearly developed from themes within it, with a potentially vast reach and epic scale. It’d take a day to see it staged entire. {BLANK} might hold the attention even more than some recent seven-hour productions but naturally isn’t designed to unfold with that reach and articulation. It is though, with Aberg’s links forged this way compelling and bleakly miraculous.