Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 21 July 2018
The relationship between fathers and daughters is complicated. They’re close, they fall out, they’re too alike. They love, they hate, they fail to understand. As I said, complicated.
Playwright Boo Killebrew hadn’t talked to her father, Larry, for years – since he left her mother for another woman – but she spent six days not knowing whether he was dead or alive when he was caught in the eye of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As Katrina made landfall, its strongest winds – gusting 175 mph – slammed into Gulfport, Mississippi, destroying most of it. Larry, a doctor, was working at the city hospital. Boo was partying in New York when she heard the news.
Later, whether it was guilt or a cathartic exercise, Boo wrote a play about that night in August 2005. Who knew it would take a killer hurricane to quell the tempest between estranged father and daughter?
The Play About My Dad – what else could it be called? – which has just opened at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre is a force of nature itself, blowing conventional storytelling out of the window. Poignant and heartbreaking, the hurricane is used as a framing device to tell the story of fathers and their children who are torn apart by words and deeds, their fractured relationships, regrets and love. It’s profoundly moving and beautifully, if unconventionally, told.
We meet Larry (David Schaal) who has been recruited by Boo (Hannah Britland) to play himself in her play.
Together they workshop it, altering and adding scenes, to tell Larry’s experiences in Katrina.
And, along the way, we meet ambulancemen, Kenny and Neil, the Thomas family – Jay, Rena and son Michael – and the much loved Essie Watson, a wonderful old bird who has weathered more than one storm and intends to face Katrina with the same stoical resistance.
Each strand knits together as the hurricane reaches its climax and plunges its victims into a situation of unparallelled tragedy.
But fluttering behind her words and scenes is a much more personal story as Boo tries to understand what went wrong with her relationship with Larry.
Schaal’s modestly heroic doctor, who refused to leave a hospital under threat, is beautifully played. Larry appears humble, meek, an everyman, an every dad, who is overcome with emotion when he hears his daughter’s voice on the phone.
Larry is delighted that Boo has reconnected and now wants to write a play about his part in Katrina.
But he is blindsided when Boo keeps adding new scenes that force him to confront the devastating reasons behind their initial split.
Kenny and Neil make a fascinating double act – although I think Nathan Walsh (Neil) would probably want to forget the night I was in and he lost his way in a scene.
Ammar Duffus plays Kenny, a young medic seemingly with the gift of foresight and the ability to time travel. It’s a little left field but perfectly at home in this quirky, inventive play.
The Thomas family, like thousands of others caught up in the hurricane, thought that there was no need to evacuate, but, as water surges into their home they are faced with some terrible choices.
Young Michael (on our night a fine turn by T’jai Adu-Yeboah) can’t swim and is terrified. His reassuring mother, Rena (Annabel Bates) does what she can to allay his fears and Joel Lawes’ brave Jay does everything a father can do to protect his family from the rising water.
And Essie, a beautifully moving performance by Miquel Brown, waits at home for her only son to arrive from New Orleans and rescue her.
The old story-teller, and a mother figure to Larry when he was growing up, sits in her rocking chair, regaling him with reminiscences while the wind howls around them, wrecking its devastation.
The human stories make engrossing drama but the meek sound effects could be more convincing. There was little to identify them as hurricane force winds and, instead, it sounded more like the crackle and hiss of an old record.
Certainly director Stella Powell-Jones could have created more tension with improved sound to suggest the full-blooded and terrifying roar of a Biblical storm rather than the gentle rustle of a slight summer’s breeze.
Hannah Britland is an actress playing the writer and, when Welsh lost the plot, she stepped in to rescue him like any playwright would during the rehearsal process. It was a little surreal but she gives a compelling performance, both as a professional playwright, and as a daughter trying to reconnect with a father she clearly loves.
Families are an emotional maelstrom. Often parents and kids, siblings, spouses, and any combination thereof, fall out over the slightest thing.
You can see here that Boo was horrified that something could have happened to her dad and she would never have had a chance to say sorry, or explain, or make up. Too often we leave it too late and then it is impossible to fix.
The Play About My Dad is funny, heartfelt, enthralling and devastating.
Running at Jermyn Street Theatre until July 21.
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