There are two ways to respond to this new play by David Eldrige: either enjoy it as a dramatic piece or be put off by the North London middle class angst that smothers this play from the start to the finish. As a contemporary play about drug addiction and the impact of drug addiction on relationships, it is gripping and fast paced and, in fact so much so, that you don’t notice its lengthy performance time. Lisa Dillon, for whom this play was written for, plays a BBC television presenter – Lucy – who has been sacked after being caught taking drugs. We follow her harrowing downward spiral as she resorts to desperate means to feed her habit, this time with hard-core drugs. Worse still, we witness her mother, Barbara, support her daughter’s drug habit. We also meet Lucy’s older sister, Angela, who on the surface is Lucy’s antithesis, and who struggles to stop her mother and sister from their self destructive behaviours.
Some of the lines in the first half of the play patronisingly set out that addiction doesn’t only annihilate the lives of people living in council estates and who go on the dole when they turn 16. And yes, we do understand that addiction in any form isn’t bound by class or status. But we cannot be expected to sympathise with a 20-something middle class woman, brought up in a comfortable North London home and exposed to good education (including clarinet lessons), and whose life is now blighted by her addiction to heroin.
Where this play fails is in the second half which seeks to explain the reasons behind Lucy’s addiction and they sound hollow. Loneliness and a mother’s smothering love don’t lead many people to inject heroin into themselves. Lucy tells her mother that her drug addiction is also due to her striving to be perfect for her mother because her ‘mother was perfect and gave her everything’, after which point it becomes a struggle to take anything seriously.
The second half of the play also attempts to show us that beneath Angela’s veneer of strength lies an acute sense of self-hatred. But we are left none the wiser why she is inflicted with this sense of self-hatred. Every time we see Barbara in her home, she is never without a glass of wine and, while there are suggestions of an alcohol addiction, this isn’t explored satisfactorily in the play.
On the plus side, the complexities of the three women are portrayed well although there is a tendency towards hysteria at times. Lisa Dillon’s Lucy gets our full attention throughout the play as she vacillates between regret and desperation; between rudeness and neediness. But it is Kieran Bew who stands out in this production with his portrayals of all the male characters. To move seamlessly from a drug dealer to a camp nurse to an understanding psychiatrist to a stingy tabloid reporter and to portray each with conviction is truly impressive.
With a cleverly effective revolving set and good performances all round, this is by all means a sleek production and one that can be enjoyed as a dramatic piece. But I fear that this play maybe wanting to be more than that. In the current times we live in, this comes across as one of self indulgence.
The Knot of the Heart is on at the Almeida Theatre until 30 April. Performance time is approximately 2 hours and 35 minutes with a 15 minute interval.