FringeReview UK 2018
Cordelia Lynn’s second play for the Royal Court is featured Upstairs. James Macdonald relishes directing in a naturalistic setting, and Laura Hopkins’ set provides this. Helen Johnson’s costumes subfusc perfectly. Max Pappenheim’s sound is ever-present, a subsong of disquiet and terror.
There’s a moment in Cordelia Lynn’s One For Sorrow when the magpie trope jumps into surreal recorded squawks. It’s a symbolist flicker in a very real ‘now’ of crumps sirens machine-gun fire and helicopters beating over north London as a nightclub and bar are bombed, gunmen rampage and a stadium’s about to be stormed with five hundred people inside. Lawyer Emma though is still terrified of birds. Max Pappenheim’s sound is ever-present, a subsong of disquiet and terror. The TV blurs though someone brings out the latest death-toll ‘just saying’ like the weather in the streets. There’s a cousin out there whose mobile’s dead.
Meanwhile there’s open door to anyone seeking refuge. It begins in darkness with a miced-up voice telling us sotto voce ‘expect me’. Lynn straddles prejudice in refusing to let us off her own directions: ‘He isn’t what they expected… he isn’t necessarily what they want.’ Though we return twice to voiceover blackout, it’s this bright verismo that dominates, unsettling in its very magnolia.
Lynn’s play is mounted in the smaller Upstairs theatre. It doesn’t feel like that though. James Macdonald relishes directing rising panic in a naturalistic setting, and Laura Hopkins (whose Terminal 3/Act at the Print Room proved hauntingly evanescent) provides an ideal bland white/oatmeal affair of a kitchen diner, half-eaten lasagne meal stage right with normal salad and opened wine. Behind lies two doors one dimly signifying the front door, the other a backroom once awkwardly lit to reveal huddled figures. Helen Johnson’s costumes subfusc perfectly in character from a skimpy shirt to heavy anorak. The sparse room announces taste as middle-class as Imogen and Chloe: magnolia walls, carpet with single sofa foregrounded with Argos-style uplighter and crucially, art mobile in transparent blue plastic. It’s Chloe’s and it works. And those walls start bleeding ink.
Much tension features verbally sleepwalking people on a day of broken glass where their own’s pristine. Guy Hoare’s lighting plays evenly like an affably-lit self-imprisoning save when the flickering artwork’s switched on and reveals executions; or total blackness more effective than I’ve (as it were) not seen for ages.
There’s tried formula twisted here in the doorstopping of an unknown (if here invoked) guest. Unlike An Inspector Calls dashed with Guess who’s Coming to Dinner? One For Sorrow refuses the comfort of historical period or another liberal nation’s smug affirmations. Nor does Lynn allow a push to dystopia. We know these sounds.
This imminent arrival sits differently with Imogen’s teenage sister Chloe – viscerally excited by everything including John’s shocked appearance – and their skinny-liberal parents: Sarah Woodward’s human rights lawyer Emma and her slightly younger, slightly redundant husband Bill. This is Neil Dudgeon who portrayal of moral flabbiness is uncannily us.
Bill’s first words ‘listen to your mother, Imogen’ has Emma deliciously telling him to shut up. All sperm-father Bill can do later is overturn tables and follow his wife into illiberal democracy. Yet Emma informs him: ’When this is over, I’m going to fuck you like you’ve never been fucked before.’
This Eros/Thanatos moment’s the closest we get to the couple. Emma’s perpetually scared underneath, but capable of elegant bluster. Till now. Woodward emits a tight-lipped watchfulness that sometimes overhears itself: ’I don’t know why I just said that’. It pitches an awareness denied to Bill. Lynn doesn’t have time to explore this conduit of guilt except with Imogen, though her great success is cheerfully conflicted Chloe.
That’s partly because Lynn revels in litanic repetitions, each character lobbing it verbatim back to another; a hypnotic ritual space where the drama is. It’s effective though a bit time-consuming – trauma, avoidance, fear, daily numbing ritual yammer unnervingly at us. Reminiscent of Pinter, it serves a more propulsive end like Martin Crimp or supremely Caryl Churchill.
John a robot engineer arrives dusty, in shock, courtesy of idealist eldest daughter Imogen and her #opendoor. So is he or isn’t he? Irfan Shamji’s off-kilter warmth featured strongly in Joe White’s debut play Mayfly at OrangeTree. Here he speaks in a droid monotone that sets out his difference, whatever that is. Imogen later praises him for being ‘articulate’ a word he brightly spits back. ‘I’ve been dreaming of the day when a woman would tell me I’m Articulate.’
John comes from a family of sisters who finish each others’ sentences, and that starts happening when his own grim humour plays on prejudice. ‘I can make you a bomb.’ He’s playing, referring to google search but Lynn’s needling. John’s parents are London too he assures them. No-one can articulate ‘British Asian’. Lynn a trained musician pays minute attention to the rhythms and pitch of saying.
Pearl Chandra’s Imogen haunts from the moment she does nothing. For nearly all the play she’s the stillest, save Shamji. Chandra’s part is potentially immense, and Lynn needs more time or more filleting-in of detail to focus Imogen. Though a cipher for partly-failed liberalism she’s hyper-aware of this, anticipating every criticism including complicity and cultural assumption. Imogen’s gesture, which she starts regretting then affirming is a detailed one too. Chandra invests Imogen with a magnetic longing for connection across boundaries. Most of us share it: but not this purely, this cravingly.
The best part of the play arrives when the younger trio circle round each other’s weaknesses, and both sisters attack John.’ You make me sick’ his rescuer tells him, twice.
Kitty Archer still at RADA makes an exhilarating debut as the violence and sex-fixated Chloe, someone who echoes Imogen’s idealism without processing it. So every nostrum’s delivered with a raw garnish of jargon, just to get it out of the way. But Archer’s Chloe flickers around the family‘s moral perimeter more ambivalently too. Her past obsession with execution embarrasses her now, but she’s hardly moved on. Echoing her mother she expresses herself by ‘totally’ wanting to ‘fuck’ or not her ex Freddie, or John. There’s a moment when these normally overly-yoked obsessions come together; another where contemplating a casualty, she’s ‘glad’. Lynn’s forensic close-up of a sensationist personality is refreshingly frank. Chloe has you cheering and hissing and her very confusion, so sharply etched by Archer, is a small tour-de-force: she breathes outside the play.
‘I thought to myself that perhaps we could make a space together, you and I’ Imogen confesses to John after some extraordinary events. How we get from shelter to saviour isn’t clear. There’s no exploration, no trigger to intimacy. Imogen by the end in her own blackout contemplates something almost incredible from anonymity concertina’d by terror. But that’s not an inaccurate summary of how we try to come together.
Lynn’s a compelling dramatist whose political imagining is swept into musical paragraphs – she often writes long ones, unlike many of her contemporaries – and lands on rhythmic details, pitches of self-betrayal. She’s enlarged her scope since her acclaimed 2015 Court debut Lela & Co; and if her voice is still settling, that’s because she’s hugely ambitious. We need its fulfilment.