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FringeReview UK 2023


Veritas Theatre Company, Kepow Theatre Company

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre


Low Down

Because she’s almost permanently working as an actor, including in her own work, Abigail Hood doesn’t seem to have attracted the praise other late Millennial writers already have. On this evidence she’s one of the very finest, perhaps the most distinctive. I will go anywhere my budget allows to see a new work by Abigail Hood, and so should you.

Directed by Kevin Tomlinson, Designer Felix Waters; and stage-managed by Lucy Napier, Marketing Photography Hannah Veale, Marketing Design Andrew Harvey, Production Photography Mark Dawson, Sound Design Paul Furnival, Videography Holly-Rose Tomlinson.

Till August 19th


With its 2018 premiere Abigail Hood’s Spiral announced an extraordinary talent, confirmed by 2022’s Monster, both at the Park Theatre.

Now Spiral’s been revived at Jermyn Street Theatre again directed by Hood’s regular collaborator Kevin Tomlinson, who reprises his role as Mark. Hood herself returns to the role of fragile Leah at the heart of this play.

Hood is on one level a brutal realist – and the degree of trust between her and Tomlinson obviates the need for an intimacy and fight director: normally you’d need both. But Hood’s also a redemptive writer, with a faint visionary gleam.

Though the nominal spiral sees one of descent or ever tightening Greek tragedy – both are hinted – Hood refuses easy tragedy, or a clean break from it. Her characters pulse with flaws like sutures, wounds visible, transmitted, never entirely cleaned, except occasionally. Sometimes that’s literal. Hood’s characters acquire bruises the way others change costume.

With both playscripts of Spiral and Monster available at discount, it’s easy to see how Hood’s darkened and knotted the possibility of redemption, though even there there’s one act of difficult affirmation common to both. But that would involve a spoiler.

We first see something decidedly creepy. Tom (Jasper Jacob) is asking 15-year-old daughter Sophie how her day in school went. But he’s asking her to adjust her uniform. It’s soon clear she’s Leah, a  role-playing escort in her twenties. But Tom has no designs on Leah. Sophie’s vanished six months ago and he’s struggling with re-enacting their last meeting, as if that might furnish a clue.

Hood knows what she’s triggering and plays with it. Seemingly benign older man meets much younger girl, whom he’s kind to. But his own secret’s far darker, and even when known, there’s something far more devastating. That’s the plot of Lucy Prebble’s first play The Sugar Syndrome from 2003, last revived at the Orange Tree in early 2020. But there it was a girl of Sophie’s age; Leah’s already mid-twenties. And Tom hides no dark. He draws it to him instead.

Hood also writes like no-one else. Intense feelings flecked with dark humour, a sense of overhanging dread: that one character is almost pathologically violent and liable to explode.

Tom’s wife Gill (Rebecca Crankshaw) is finding consolation in religion (another theme in Hood) and visiting church. The investigation and search is winding down. Tom’s open about his meetings with Leah, whom he’s now befriended, as she confesses her misery at her work enforced by controlling Mark who tells her she’s “nothing” worthless, merely “fuckable”.

Tomlinson is magnificent, horribly convincing, lowering and pathologically playful. He does menace excellently yet manages to transmit a kernel of hurt, and he and Hood’s script play with our sympathy

The scenes where Mark makes Leah beg for a Curly-Whirly (yet another trope in Hood, food) makes everyone squirm in their seats. Indeed the gasp of shock and intakes of breath are the most audible I’ve heard in this theatre. She and Tom now meet clandestinely by London Bridge – when they first do by accident Tom’s convinced Leah’s about to throw herself in.

Gill’s unimpressed. Crankshaw’s hurt dignity, her visibly working face, struggling to accommodate Tom then hardening over, is the picture of a nominal Christian taken beyond her bounds of sympathy, even when challenged on this very point. Crankshaw and Jacob are superb together, registering the pause and beat of hurt, loss, the sheer lack of tactile comfort both yearn for..

They’re both teachers at the same school. Then suddenly a girl, Emma alleges Tom inappropriately touched her, and combined with his meetings with Leah Gill explodes and moves out. She’s met Leah on the way in and assumes the worst; as do all the neighbours.

Tom’s motives in rescuing Leah’s are achingly believable. As both benign and over-protective guardian, Jacob’s wholly easier with Hood than Crankshaw. Hood’s own mix of bright surprise breaks from hunched defensiveness, fight-and-flight tactics and a moral compass that’s been spun about by the horrific magnetic north of Mark. But a compass that when settled knows itself, the right thing to do.

Till Mark tracks her down, again and again. Hood’s exceptional in her sheer haunted fright, her shame (especially meeting Gill), enforced playfulness and the real thing: like a cork out of a bottle of the champagne she shares with Tom, on what would be Sophie’s 16th birthday. Intelligent, underrated Leah’s a wholly believable creation.

We learn Mark’s hook – bereft Leah by her mother’s grave befriended then groomed by someone who realises Leah’s lack of self-worth is both an aphrodisiac and a means of control. Leah’s escort work has to be reported precisely, a line must not be crossed, and there’s a knife scar to show precisely the mark above which they mustn’t go. Leah’s forced to dog-roles for that Curly-Whirly.

By contrast she freely shares chips with Tom. Who learns in his turn – as Leah vouchsafes graphic details about how the body drowns. If this sounds grim it isn’t. It’s a fragile joy, till forces close in on Tom in the shape of public abuse and worse; and of course, Mark.

Hood refuses to create a lurid tragedy however. Gill points one way out in her deepest anger, yet later on however dark events turn – and they do – there’s a just-gleaming path ahead. Even when there’s a possibility that Sophie’s been found. Hood’s way with psychological realism, thinking through what each character might do, seems acute, natural and occasionally cataclysmic.

Hood and Tomlinson together are alarmingly strong. Performances all round are exceptional and wholly believable; the tension’s almost unbearable. Several scenes are so electrifying the audience leave the occasional gasp and cry out. Only exceptional actors can bring the level of intensity and sheer howling pain – as well as rage – to bear as both do here. Hood’s Leah is terrified, almost frozen, her enforced actions churning and degrading.

All four actors are riveting. Crankshaw and Jacob are relatively understated, telling everything through quiet voice and expression; though Jacob has explosive moments. Hood and Tomlinson scale something close to Greek tragedy. This great script crackles, elevated with great acting; the themes flayed bare remain perennial.

Felix Waters’ set is simple grey-painted backstage, three stone-dressed boxes that function as anything from a joined-up bridge to a café chairs and table. A hook to hang a coat, very few props like phones complete a space that needs to be dynamic with physicality and danger. There’s exquisite lighting, especially shadowing at the end that’s uncredited. Jermyn Street might take a bow for that. Paul Furnival’s sound, usually music, sometimes an atmospheric subtle backdrop when another city’s invoked, is pin-point. Holly-Rose Tomlinson’s videography is similarly underplayed. This production, like the play, knows what it is.

Hood’s work is gritty and refuses metaphysical tricks or slickness because it’s both visionary and fraught with characters whose wounds bruise each other and shudder. As well as masterly in dialogue: immersed in the honed, elliptical, muscled language actors often bring when they write, there’s no padding.

And because she’s almost permanently working as an actor, including in her own work, Hood doesn’t seem to have attracted the praise other late Millennial writers (born around the early 1990s) already have. On this evidence – do buy both scripts – she’s one of the very finest, perhaps the most distinctive. I will go anywhere my budget allows to see a new work by Abigail Hood, and so should you.