FringeReview UK 2020
Directed by Anthony Shrubsall, Lighting and Sound Design by Chuma Emembolu. Technical Manager Gabrielle Coomber.
So being special is a freighted, frightened word. Being special to your dad comes with special responsibilities. It’s just that you can’t always see what they are. Special’s a word that percolates with devastating force, not least in the mouths of two sisters. And how one of them, Donna, winds up encouraging a bird into her prison cell strangely echoes her life. The bird at least has sense. Donna calls it Johnny, the name of her youngest child of four. He’s special too.
The Good Dad (A Love Story) staged at the Old Red Lion Theatre about the extremity of special treatment from puberty onwards affirms Gail Louw’s extraordinarily varied output. It’s recently taken in Shackleton’s Carpenter and The Ice-Cream Boys about post-Apartheid politics in her native South Africa (both Jermyn Street). A Life Twice Given addresses the way grief and cloning entwine like DNA. Or there’s Being Brahms, and the shadow self of an immigrant German artist; or Blonde Poison an astonishing anti-Nazi tale. That was performed in Sydney Opera House for example. Louw’s celebrated anywhere but in the UK where she’s lived since 1976.
Sarah Lawrie’s padding about, an almost equine deportment and sudden crouch tells us all we need to know about her current confinement, freezing in a cell where she shouts to warders to give her a little heat.
But after what Donna’s lived, is it more a prison than anywhere else? As Donna addresses the prison of her days, we’re ravelled back into the minds not just of her but her mother, Susan, curiously complacent for quite some time about what’s happening; and Carol, Donna’s sibling. Carol’s disturbed, withdrawn and declares a special interest in Johnny. It’s not enough Donna’s named her firstborn after Carol: Caroline. There’s something curious about her, and certainly Johnny, whom Carol wishes to take to another continent with her.
Directed by with a quiet mesmerising build-up by Anthony Shrubsall, the clean lighting and subtle sound design by Chuma Emembolu – most present in that initial rush of birdcall – are minimal. There’s a light coral-coloured shawl in the traditional black space, a ledge where pieces of chocolate are stached. And that’s it. Even the chocolate trope fades. There’s a tall stool, that takes on power later. Lawrie’s perching, un-perching, pacing, ravelling up a shawl does service for three women and other voices including David, the good dad.
Hers is a phenomenally reined-in performance, simmering, boiling with a mix of dread and anger. The way Donna’s groomed, almost chosen by the rest of her family quite complacently to stay behind and look after the good dad with the bad ticker, begs layers of complicity that involve, perhaps most of the family. The truly creepy moments when Donna’s edged towards, assailed in a shiver of flinched rejections is spine-chilling. As is the way the family seem oblivious, and of course, being special, with ‘our secret’ Donna herself remains silent.
This is no ordinary tale of grooming though. It involves pregnancies, Donna becoming the ‘other woman’ to her own mother, moving out with Dad, becoming suddenly incredibly young rather like her own mother. And finding she’s not quite as special after all when still only in her late twenties ‘going from child to middle-aged in a moment’, she finds David’s eyes stray towards his new family.
Carol’s shuddering journey too suggests acute disturbances, displacements about somehow being abandoned. One of the miraculous corollaries here is being the sister not chosen brings its own trauma, and net of damages. Carol’s obsessive regard for Johnny, the ‘special’ one becomes almost as creepy as her father’s. But really he’s in a class of his own. Something has to give, something to break the cycle. Never have the parenthesis of a title – A Love Story – proved so bitter.
Lawrie’s intensity is magnificent. Her core performance of Donna is riveting. Almost as much so is her portrayal of Carol, the fragile sister left behind, just as Donna’s left behind tangled in all the might-have-beens of normal love and family. Susan’s a little less realized because more passive till she makes one stand; and Lawrie suitably hardens her voice.
Running at just under an hour this play packs far more force than some twice its length. Intricate, fiercely intelligent and addressing multiple corollaries of abuse, The Good Dad shows how these widen beyond the victim with both further casualties and victims whose choosing to do nothing destroys them. And then there’s of course, the special ones like Johnny. However she picks out a life afterwards, Donna’s remaining family aren’t walking on eggshells. They are the eggshells from which there’s no real awakening.