Southwark Playhouse, London – until 3 December 2022
When individual members of a family are facing a variety of problems, can looking back at their collective past help to resolve matters or does that simply serve to make things worse? This is the premise behind Here by debut playwright Clive Judd, the 2022 winner of the Papatango Prize for new writing currently in production on Southwark Playhouse’s main stage. The award has thrown up a couple of outstanding new plays in recent years, notably Samuel Bailey’s Shook and Igor Memic’s Old Bridge, making Judd’s task a hard act to follow. Although it contains some remarkable writing and is successful to an extent, this play also becomes a bit baggy and unfocused at times.
Talking of unfocused, I find it hard to imagine why the set designer (Jasmine Swan) decided to place the entire production inside a gauze cube – other than to facilitate what happens in the last ten minutes (no spoilers). It meant that for much of the time I was uncomfortably squinting to make out faces and their reactions which were actually quite an important facet of the narrative. To make things even more difficult the director (George Turvey)’s blocking meant that on far too many occasions I was looking straight at the back of a character’s head as they talked to someone sitting directly opposite thus masking both sets of features. And I say that as someone who had (or at least should have had) a direct line of view; as the audience was sitting on three sides I can only imagine the difficulties that others may have had.
The play itself was, fortunately, more satisfying, being a mash up of a ghost story and a problem laden social drama which references its roots by having its events taking place in and around a kitchen sink. And what a set of baggage the characters unpack during the two hour duration of the piece.
Mum Monica (Lucy Benjamin – very good) is permanently frazzled and is heading towards, if not already embracing, alcoholism. Mild-mannered (step)Dad Jeff (Mark Frost) goes to church and paints model soldiers but has recently revived his gambling addiction. Daughter Jess (Hannah Milward) is having several types of personal crisis, has dropped out of Uni and is at distinct odds with her mother over her relationship with her ex-tutor. Into this festering stew steps nephew/cousin Matt (Sam Baker-Jones; a remarkably engaging stage debut and a name to watch if this excellent performance is anything to go by). He’s a cheerful, possibly homeless, rootless drifter who wants to lay to rest the ghosts of his black sheep mother and his grandfather who continue to haunt his thoughts and indeed his (in)actions.
Matt’s presence, after a long absence, acts as an unwitting catalyst which unleashes the barely pinioned demons of the other three and it is not long before the whole family is at odds with each other. Judd structures a number of duologues between the quartet which shows how they become different people according to who they are interacting with. Much of this is revealed through the many mundanities and inanities which characterise awkward social situations and the four actors give expert and well timed performances which highlight this.
While they may be “here” the quartet often do not “hear” what is really being said. Often this comes in the form of the pauses and silences which are masterfully deployed throughout and which increase the tension during the supernatural elements of the play. Actually, I could cheerfully have done without these as they sometimes seemed to belong to another narrative altogether. The intrusion of the past onto the present could, to my way of thinking, have been equally powerfully portrayed without the literal presence of spectres from the past. That said, Asaf Zohar’s compositional and sound design skills are highly effective in raising the back of the neck hairs.
For all its faults, Here is an impressive first play from a writer who will almost certainly go on to greater things and performed by a deeply committed cast whose performances keep the audience hooked throughout – at least until the last ten minutes or so when I just found myself laughing for all the wrong reasons. And the very ending of the play still needs work. While there’s nothing wrong in having an open ended conclusion it was evident that the audience really weren’t sure if the play was over; it simply stopped rather than finished. A bit like this review, really.