Royal Court Theatre, London – until 11 August 2018
Guest reviewer: Gregory Forrest
I swear to God the Theatre Upstairs is gonna give me an aneurism. An explosion. Pitch black. Shouts and screams and gunfire. The immediate sense of panic is all consuming, and I don’t blame one lady for having to bow out of Cordelia Lynn’s startling new play One For Sorrow.
At its heart, the text uses a classic trope: the arrival of a stranger exposing the moral shortcomings of an elite family. In this case, via the hashtag #opendoor, eldest daughter Imogen invites the outside in during a catastrophic terrorist attack.
“I don’t think you should call it a terrorist attack,” Imogen pipes up. And so begins the play’s fascination with how we give fear its own language and are deathly afraid of saying the wrong thing. Kitty Archer is compelling as teenage daughter Chloe, who feels she needs to experience the ‘incident’ first hand in order to salvage some authenticity from it. Irfan Shamji also does an excellent job as John, the visibly shaken visitor who struggles to process his trauma against the sharp reality that his skin is the ‘wrong’ colour on a night like this.
It is a play packed with ideas. Non-platforming, ableism, neo-colonial subtext, and intersectional feminism are all banded about. If this sounds a bit Guardian comments section, Lynn’s skill as a writer is being able to treat these knotty debates with sincerity as well as undermine them with comic flare.
That is not to deny the ‘truth’ of such topics, not necessarily, but instead to suggest an altogether more interesting conversation about objectivity and reason. Our contemporary insistence on being right and reasonable, which itself swallows up the principle of relativity – that there may be no such thing as a stable right and wrong – and then eradicates itself by that very definition. As liberal, left-leaning Westerners, the theory goes, it’s right that our perspective is wrong.
Does the play succumb to being over-analytical? Absolutely. But I recognise truth in this crippling self-analysis. As Imogen, Pearl Chanda delivers a powerful monologue about pacifisim which repeatedly has to revise itself as it moves deeper and deeper into contradiction. We are stuck in so many conversations right now, and seeing Imogen squirm in an intellectual straight-jacket of her own making is truly heart-breaking.
Thankfully these wordy theories are never far away from moments of genuine dramatic tension. Using blackouts, subtle fades, and a single strobe pulse, the punctuation of the play is beautifully accentuated by the work of lighting designer Guy Hoare. And similarly, Max Pappenheim’s sound design ensures the chaos of the streets is never forgotten.
The play may run out of steam a bit in its second act, but One For Sorrow remains a play for both your brain and your pulse. Explosive.