Omnibus Theatre, London – until 8 March 2020
Marie McCarthy’s Clapham Omnibus just seems to go from strength to strength. Starting with a barely transformed library, and on the slenderest of resources, McCarthy has turned the venue into a positive mini power-house – a sort of BAC in miniature – now sporting a new café and running two shows a night.What is her secret? Bold, inclusive programming is part of it. And selection, of course. The Apologists is a case in point. Three cracking stories, by three different writers around the theme of public apologies.
Click online and it doesn’t take long to find them, especially where health and social services are concerned. Most often it’s women who have been in the firing line as chief executives of Health Trusts and Social Services, but not solely.
The Apologists, as it happens, focuses on women, all three played by the highly talented Australian actor and performer, Gabrielle Scawthorn.
First aired at last year’s Vault Festival – now a recognised hub for new and emerging talent – Jane Moriarty’s taut, economic, but highly effective production gives us insights into the personal stories behind the headlines of public apology and by implication draws in the knotty question of responsibility. Where does the buck really stop? And who is doing the hounding?
By far the most intriguing – and also perhaps the most difficult to follow – is Cordelia O’Neill’s Seven, The Sweetest Hour. Topped and tailed by a suicide, in between is a zingy, playful, but complex interweaving of characters around an online travel journalist and the owner of a quaint B&B.
Even more than an act of apology, O’Neill’s Seven lets us in on a contemporary world of selfies, online fandom, narcissism and vulnerability. Shawthorn’s journalist is a young woman of ravening hunger to be liked, expressed through in situ videos and peppered by self hatred.
Similarly but by contrast, her ‘victim’ is a woman who is also living in a ‘dream’ world of her own making, but wanting to transmit love. When fate brings the two clashing into the same vortex, tragedy strikes.
O’Neill’s writing is both graphic and fairly elliptical at times; it’s not always clear how her characters are interlinking though Shawthorn differentiates them well enough.
In its last moments, however, O’Neill delivers two remarkable knockout blows – of self-knowledge and responsibility on the part of the journalist and a kind of tenderness towards the B&B landlady.
Bookending Seven, the writing of Iskandar Sharazuddin’s Excuses and Lucinda Burnett’s New Universe is at once more conventional but in Burnett’s case, no less shocking in its content.
While Sharazuddin’s highlights a moment’s indiscretion – a supposed ‘racist’ comment by an NHS CEO – Burnett’s touches on the scandal that broke over Oxfam and other international aid charities’ sexual abuse of clients abroad.
Sharazuddin’s Excuses is a touching reminder of the pressures of running a public and personal face when an NHS CEO finds her maternal instincts overpowering her public persona, made all the more remarkable by being written by a man.
Scawthorn gives us both the cool professional standing at a podium reciting the words required these days of ‘mea culpa’ admissions and the distraught, far from perfect mother, whose extreme distress when her small daughter suffers a dramatic domestic accident, spins her into using uncareful language.
The power of the piece as in them all, is, of course, in the detail. Burnett only slowly lets slip in New Universe the extent of her Charity Deputy’s fury behind her reaction to her CEO’s public apology about his staff’s misconduct with his off camera, `it’s not as if I’d raped them myself’.
© Steve Gregson, how CEO’s deal with criticism, Gabrielle Scawthorn as Siena, a Deputy CEO in Lucinda Burnett’s New Universe…
The fact that she also endured a rape at the hands of a Security Chief when working `in the field’ but that her report of the incident was seemingly `lost’ as may have been other reports of similar abuses, brings accountability into the sharpest focus. It also, painfully, highlights, as does Excuses, how misdemeanours, large or small, can wipe out years of well-intentioned hard work.
`Please don’t leak this to the press, it’ll ruin all the work we can offer people in the future’, cites the Charity CEO to his Deputy.
It must be a plea thrown at many whistleblowers in the past and will be certainly into the future. Turn a blind eye or follow a deeper integrity? Where do loyalties lie at the end of the day?
Scawthorn is simply amazing in this monologue triptych moving through moods and personas with lightening speed and wonderful authenticity.
A 65 minute tour de force, it certainly deserves a longer life than the few performances at Omnibus. Here’s hoping.
Written by Lucinda Burnett, Cordelia O’Neill, Iskandar Sharazuddin
Act 1: Excuses by Iskander Sharazuddin
Act II: Seven, The Sweetest Hour by Cordelia O’Neill
Act III: New Universe by Lucinda Burnett
Director: Jane Moriarty
Co-Director (R&D): Kate Budgen
Designer: Gabrielle Scawthorn
Lighting Designer: Saul Valiunas
Sound Designer: Rob Donnelly-Jackson
Technical Stage Manager: Chantelle Dobbs
Assistant Director: Sam Hooper
Producer: Hugo Chiarella
Presented by Unlikely Productions
The Apologists opened at the Omnibus Theatre, London on March 3, 2020.
Runs to March 8, 2020.