Trafalgar Studios 2, London – until 16 September 2017
SUICIDE, SADNESS, SNIPING AND SUPPER… It often puzzles me why sharp little stage gems like this don’t get pounced on by TV – notably the BBC – instead of commissioners wasting our eyesight on gloopy dramas custom-built to challenge nobody. Here it is, a neat 75 minutes, bang-on topical and sharply written by Jordan Tannahill, then only 23.
There’s a frugal cast of five and one set, a dinner table. OK, it is Canadian, but the host of the painfully awkward supper is a soft-right politician and the wife an artist, their guests Michael and Tamara a salesman and a homemaker. All easy to relate to and translate. And the visitors’ son, at the centre of the dark situation, is anybody’s 16-year-old. It would be riveting telly.
But never mind. On stage, transferred from the tiny Finborough to the slightly less tiny Trafalgar 2, the intimacy and force of Michael Yale’s production is riveting anyway. Debora (Lucy Robinson) and the politician Michael (Todd Boyce) have lost their son to suicide after he was taunted online and had his locker defaced for being gay. We only gradually learn that he was theatrical about his differentness, what with the eyeliner and vlogs. “He was just weird. He tried to be.…we did it to be funny,” says the visitors’ son, his chief tormentor Curtis (David Leopold).
So months after the disaster and attendant publicity Michael and Debora have invited the boy and his parents, Bill (Alex Lowe) and Tamara (Lisa Stevenson) round. The plan is for some home-made ‘restorative justice’ with formal letters from each side and that modern ideal – “ closure.”
Actually, neither of the fathers really believe in that. Michael couldn’t bring himself to write an “open your hearts” letter like Deb’s, and Bill says in a moment of exasperation that grief can’t be shared around, “it’s yours, and you carry it all your life”. The party develops into small explosions and rumbles of danger, the two sets of parents rubbing against one another’s small class differences as well as the immense central issue (one remembers Yasmina Reza’s less dark but equally furious God of Carnage). In the middle, speaking little but always devastatingly to the point, is the boy Curtis: glowering, embarrassed, but with a deep sullen honesty which exposes the adults’ flaws and the inadequacy of the peacemaking mantras to which Deb clings. Until she snaps.
Robinson brings a real sense of danger to the bereaved mother, brittle and over-poised. At one point – just as I was expecting a redemptive moment, she becomes a vengeful Greek Fury. Tamara’s wittering – “Art must be a source of comfort to you” is met by a chilly “I find it devastating” from this determinedly unhealed mother. The two men are hating the whole event.
And I must say that the degrees of delusion in the two women, in particular, are treated by the young author with a clear and hard, though not wholly pitiless, eye. It emerges in moments of comedy (when Tamara gushes that her own mother was an artist, Bill snaps “sleeping with Leonard Cohen doesn’t make her an artist”). But is seen far more grievously in Deb’s intense focus on her own unchallengeable right to grief and vengeance, at the expense of any real understanding of her lost son, or of the complication and mess of any teenage life.
Of Leopold, fresh out of drama school, I can’t speak too highly: as Curtis he must carry a part which moves him from surly embarrassed irritablity (my God, how teenagers do see through our psychobabble) to a devastatingly open and perfectly delivered expression of nightmare guilt. Tannahill thus confronts us with a spectrum of sensibilities: airbrushed female make-it-all-nice-again sweetness, real pain clutched and corroding into self-pity, inarticulate honest grief, and an impatient “shit-happens-kids-are-cruel” resignation. But it is in Curtis, the boy, that we see a raw, proper, painful clarity and responsibility. He stands ironically closer, if the disaster had not happened, to the wayward and troubled Joel himself. That’s the pity. In the last minute we glimpse it.
box office 0844 871 7615 to 16 Sept