There can’t be a better way for the Bush Theatre to kick off its new year and new look than by this new play by Nancy Harris. Set in a comfortable middle class West London home furnished by a shiny and to-die-for kitchen, it is about a family of three – lawyer turned mum, Hazel, her doctor husband, Richard, and their enigmatic young son, Daniel. On the surface, they have an enviable lifestyle but the cracks appear when Annie, a nanny, arrives at their doorstep.
Hazel, a mother, isn’t sure about motherhood even though she is expecting a second child. She gives up her successful legal career to run a small business from home, with which she struggles. She also struggles to bond with her young son which is a consequence of her own battle with herself about being a mother. Richard wrestles between having a financially rewarding but unfulfilling job as a plastic surgeon and his desire to do humanitarian medical work in disaster zones. Annie has her demons and we soon discover that she is not the caring person with maternal instincts we first meet on stage. Amidst these three complex and flawed adults is a disturbed young boy who quietly struggles to make sense of the adults’ lives.
The play provokes swings of emotion from one end to another and everything in between. For example, I went from liking a character at first encounter only to find that I disliked them intensely at the end and vice-versa. No one is what they seem. When I first saw Daniel, I thought he was a devil child but in the end I felt sorely moved and sorry for him. In some ways, this play reminds me of Joe Penhall’s The Haunted Child (the opening scene, especially, does) but this is a far more successful study of the damage inflicted on children by adults. All three adults betray and/or abandon young Daniel in some way.
There is energy in the writing which keeps the audience guessing what’s about to happen. The dynamics between the three adults make up the psychological thriller unfolding before our eyes. A compelling and charged play, it has a few uncomfortable scenes but a play that tackles the conventional view about motherhood with honesty is to be applauded. My one criticism of the play is that the first half of the play isn’t quite as razor sharp as the second half. Usually, most plays lose a bit of momentum after the interval but this play picks up its momentum and sprints with it post interval. There is a little too much domestic bickering in the first half, for my liking.
There is very good acting all around from the small cast. Kate Fleetwood gives us a complex woman who battles with life and is often broken but who, in the end, salvages some of her inner strength to carry on. Denise Gough gives us an excellent nanny; I defy anyone who wouldn’t wholly trust her when they first meet her. Mark Bazeley plays Richard who seamlessly slips between a man who wants to use his expertise to help people and a man who uses his power over his family to suit his needs. Jude Willoughby is one of two boys who plays Daniel and he uses his face and body to great effect to deliver a sensitive performance.
Until 11 February 2012.
Written by Nancy Harris.
Directed by Charlotte Gwinner.
Performance time: approximately 2 hours 15 minutes with an interval.