Jack Studio Theatre, London – until 1 April 2017
Rhoda is the picture-perfect 1950s American child. Obedient, clever and helpful, she is a dream for any parent. But after the death of a classmate who won the penmanship medal Rhoda coveted, mum Christine’s investigations into past “accident” uncover a dark secret from her own childhood that means Rhoda isn’t all that seems. The revelation ends in tragedy with serious implications for Rhoda’s future.
Maxwell Anderson’s 1954 domestic drama set in Tallahassee has all the marks of a thriller but with more plausibility and realism, and sophisticated storytelling – no wonder it was nominated for the Pulitzer. The gradual revelations about human nature and the possibility of psychopathy in children make for a compelling tale. It’s also refreshing to see a play from this time led by women. Christine’s husband is mostly absent due to work in Washington, leaving her alone at home with Rhoda and their loquacious landlady, Monica. The other characters are supporting, aiding Christine in her investigations whether they know it or not.
It’s a shame that the production doesn’t support the script. Clunky performances brought on by terrible, inconsistent accents interfere with pace and energy. The family of three have accents from multiple states, there are hillbilly mountain accents from characters that are middle class, and words pronounced like nothing ever heard from an American mouth. A dialect coach is sorely missed.
The faux-period costumes (evidence of a tight budget) are largely consistent, and Mary Sankey’s set shows consideration and detail. John Fricker uses the space well and considers the audience on all three sides.
The strength of this revival is the script, without a doubt. The little-known American classic unfolds a powerful story with unexpected consequences, but the performances diminish its impact.