The Father, Trafalgar Studios


Originally written for Exeunt.

For August Strindberg, love is war. It’s apt then, that the protagonist of The Father is an army Captain, a man who can only see marriage in military terms. His wife – all women, in fact – is the enemy, and married life is a series of conflicts, long campaigns broken up with sudden assaults. The Captain and his spouse Laura are “natural antagonists”, locked in a brutal Darwinian battle. Only the fittest can be allowed to survive.

In Abbey Wright’s swift and taut new production at Trafalgar Studios, we get an action close-up of this battleground. Crowded around three sides of the small studio space – sparsely populated in James Turner’s design other than the mocking Christmas tree – the audience is claustrophobically close to a play more usually seen on bigger stages, lending extra spark to the dramatic pyrotechnics. When the Captain explodes, we can taste his rage and see the gleaming whites of his eyes.

Strindberg’s play captures a family in breakdown. The Captain and Laura’s marriage, under strain for years, finally splinters apart around a pre-paternity test dilemma. How, the Captain begins to ask himself, can he be sure that he is the father of his daughter? With no Jeremy Kyle to solve the mystery, this doubt begins to sour, and Alex Ferns’ bullish, shouty Captain – face dredging up nasty memories of his run as EastEnders baddie Trevor – slowly falls apart, his straight-backed military arrogance gradually unravelling over the course of the action.

While the Captain is at the black heart of the tragedy, there’s a tougher task for Emily Dobbs as slippery, scheming Laura. Although the programme notes are keen to absolve Strindberg of out-and-out misogyny, it’s definitely Laura who comes out of this worse. The Captain might attempt to keep his wife on a tight leash, but it is Laura who intercepts his mail, convinces their new doctor that he is going mad and plants insidious doubts in his mind about the paternity of her daughter Bertha, the helpless bargaining chip shunted between the two. Both partners might be unpleasant, but it seems clear whose side the play is ultimately on.

Dobbs plays Laura as manipulative but frustrated, a caged creature who will do anything to get out. There are moments when she lends the role real bite, as when she furiously retorts “I’m not supposed to want anything, am I?”, but more often she appears as the snake her husband paints her as. It’s problematic, no doubt, and though Wright’s direction, together with Laurie Slade’s new version, creates a certain tension around Strindberg’s often misogynistic portrayals of his female characters, it shies away from confronting these difficulties head on.

Trouble is, to complain that it’s ugly is to miss the point. Strindberg’s players aremeant to be ugly, and no one escapes with an unstained character. Still, though, it’s painful to watch. Wright’s production lightens the mood by drawing out some of the plot’s more ridiculous aspects, with the action even feeling faintly farcical at moments, but it’s hard going nonetheless. Like so many of Strindberg’s characters, these aren’t people you feel inclined to spend much time in the company of, and when the curtain call arrives – as at the end of a wearying battle – it brings with it a slight exhalation of relief.

Boa, Trafalgar Studios


Originally written for Exeunt.

Clara Brennan seems to have a direct line to an audience’s tear-ducts. The playwright’s last offering, the doubly devastating Spine, left barely a dry eye during its soggy, sniffly Edinburgh run. Boa, which is similarly small-scale but wide-ranging, also produces its fair share of tear-stained cheeks by the end. At one point during the performance I see, there’s an audible gulping back of tears; the evening’s customary applause is followed by the no less appreciative rustling of tissue packets.

But where Spine effortlessly intertwined the personal and the political, dragging up sobs with both its ideas and its characters, Boa shows the strain of trying to replicate that feat. Again, there’s a relationship at its heart, though this time it’s a romantic one. Harriet Walter, all black-clad sophistication and brittle emotion, is the Boa of the title. Or rather, that’s her nickname, a childish contraction that stuck. Sometimes like the feather variety, at others more of a constrictor, she clings passionately to Guy Paul’s wry, brooding Louis as their lives are catapulted through the last few decades of world history. Love and marriage play out against a backdrop of war and devastation.

The story of the couple’s life together is told in economical but contrived reminiscences, flashing backwards and forwards through years of infatuation, excitement, anger, regret, depression, reconciliation, contentment, grief … Both Boa and Louis pursue livings that push them to extremes: the former as a dancer, contorting her body into constant, punishing pain, and the latter as a war correspondent in the ravaged south-east Asia of the latter quarter of the 20th century. Boa loses her faith in her body; Louis loses his in humanity.

The couple’s dissection of their shared history, placed in a present day context that remains indeterminate until the final moments, verges on the masochistic. Both are determined to isolate where things went wrong – in their relationship, in their careers, in the world – at the same time as reluctantly acknowledging that “you can’t fix the past”. But still they rake it over and over, stirring up old soil until you want to shake them and tell them to stop. Leave it alone.

The point is that they can’t. Hannah Price’s simple, intimate production captures something of the frenetic movement of these memories, snapping the action back and forth through time with the absolute minimum of fuss. Eventually, the two seem to bleed into one another, the past leaving its indelible stain on the present. We see this too in Walter and Paul, whose gorgeously layered performances feel shadowed in each individual moment by the characters’ past and future selves.

In an attempt to stop this obsessive scab-picking from getting too painfully introspective, Boa also casts its gaze outwards. The world intrudes both through Louis’ work, forever offstage and unseen but leaving its bloody mark nonetheless, and in Boa’s guilty, complicated preoccupation with the lives of those less fortunate. “I’m drawn to people’s suffering,” she admits, “it makes me feel.”

The handling of this confrontation of privilege and deprivation could be whereBoa gets more interesting, in the way Spine did with its angry yet unforced engagement with contemporary politics, but instead it turns out to be something of a missed opportunity. Boa and Louis are a walking parade of first world problems and they know it. Boa laughs at herself – and we laugh knowingly along with her – when she compares her rage at poverty and injustice with her no less forceful anger upon cutting into an over-ripe avocado, but Brennan rarely digs deeper than this sort of familiar and ineffectual middle-class guilt.

More convincing than the play’s nods to the wider world are the multiple ways in which its two protagonists fall apart and clumsily put each other back together again. “We’re all lovely fucking fuck-ups,” says Boa at one point, a bitter laugh on her lips. Between them, the haunted, hard-drinking couple offer plentiful proof of this over the years, but still they keep returning inexorably to each other’s arms, finding both retreat and redemption in one another. And what better reimagining of the old “warts and all” than the line “I love the piss and shit of you”? This is love not in spite of but because of every flaw, every ugliness, every mistake. That sentiment, if nothing else, can begin to make the eyes prickle. Because aren’t we all just lovely fucking fuck-ups?

Sex with a Stranger, Trafalgar Studios

Originally written for Spoonfed.

The bold title of Stefan Golaszewski’s new play, while undoubtedly attention grabbing, is slightly misleading. Although this comedy’s short, punchy scenes dance around many of the moments leading up to, informing and following the carnal act of its title, the narrative’s climax (pun intended) is never quite reached.

The central one night stand is between Grace, played with pitch-perfect, endearing awkwardness by Jaime Winstone, and Russell Tovey’s equally endearing but romantically clueless Adam. They meet in a nightclub, an encounter followed by all the usual inexpert groping, interminable late night travel and mandatory kebabs that characterise such liaisons. It is the longest, most toe-curlingly awkward display of foreplay imaginable. As a background to this fumbling, fleeting affair, Adam has left at home his long-term girlfriend Ruth, a piercingly poignant bundle of insecurities in the hands of Naomi Sheldon.

With the same shrewd observation deployed in offbeat comedy Him and Her, writer Golaszewski and director Phillip Breen have zeroed in on an unflinching, almost grubby realism. Dialogue revolves around such humdrum topics as Homebase and salad, while the subtlest facial movement from any one of the unfailingly excellent cast conveys a clutch of instantly recognisable thoughts. In the cosy space of Studio 2 such minutiae achieves maximum effect, although the minimalist, close-up focus on the mundane does threaten to dent the play with its own slightness.

The scenes between Adam and his two different partners are chopped up and intersected; fractured moments from flawed relationships that have been roughly thrown about and then separately, delicately held up to the light. Under Emma Chapman’s bright, often stark lighting, these glimpses into the lives of Adam, Grace and Ruth can feel like snapshots, brief bulb-flash illuminations that fade away as quickly as they were captured. The piece resists togetherness and resolution, but its lack of cohesion is symbolically fitting for a play that distils the lack of connection between individuals.

Looked at through the lens of these diced, jagged scenes, Sex with a Stranger reads as a jarring oxymoron: an act of the greatest intimacy juxtaposed with the most fleeting of human connections. But who out of Grace and Ruth is the greater stranger to Adam? While many aspects of these two contrasting relationships differ dramatically, the most striking moments in both are the awkward, strained silences that garner pained laughs of recognition.

Ultimately, what elevates this from the realm of mere observational humour is its unsettling grain of grim truth. Under the veil of comedy, Golaszewski is dishing up for the audience’s guilty consumption our own inability to communicate and connect. Romance may not quite be dead, but the signs of life are hard to find.

Sex with a Stranger runs at Trafalgar Studios until 25 February.