King’s Head Theatre, London
George Attwell Gerhards has written a very thought-provoking play. For a 60-minute piece he manages to give us a full range and depth of experiences which crack open difficult subjects. Fundamentally, the small and extremely talented cast is used to examine the blurring and breaking of various boundaries between:
• childhood and adulthood
• actors and their fans/members of the public/the media
• child actors and adult actors/directors/producers
• parent and child
• acting and real life
• The audience and the cast?
The three actors, including Sophie Portway as the mum, make-up artist and producer/director, cleverly play multiple roles. Providing us with a series of vignettes, they switch seamlessly from one character to another, in one scene to the other.
This is deliberately confusing for the audience as sometimes it is unclear whether they are the father, mother and child in the ‘reality’ of a family with a daughter who is a child actor, or the directors, producer, adult actor and child actor creating a TV drama.
This technique is used to great effect to convey different messages. It reflects how Annie, the child actor, brilliantly played by Tara Groves, becomes unable to distinguish between reality and acting. The technique is also used to show the harmful impact of acting in a TV soap/drama on child actors’ sense of themselves and their self-esteem.
We witness the director, Gerhards, who also plays Annie’s father and a soap actor Danny, doing his job. The director repeatedly asks Annie to play the same scene over and over, until she speaks and acts the way he wants. This results in Annie, the 13-year-old girl and actor, becoming normalised or acclimatised to the violence, aggression and sexual abuse which Danny, as an actor directs towards her.
In any other context the way Annie is treated would be seen as grooming. This is extremely uncomfortable for the audience. There were moments when I couldn’t bear to watch. It is damaging for Annie as a child, even though she is acting, we watch Annie’s behaviour change. The more successful Annie becomes, as an actor, the more time she spends acting and the more she is exposed to incidents and behaviour which would be harmful to adults not just children, but it is just pretending, so she is told. Nevertheless as a child Annie does not have the life experience or emotional or psychological maturity to distinguish between reality and acting. Even though what happens to her is part of the TV drama, it is still happening to her as a person. We realise this when Annie comments that the forthcoming screen kiss from Danny, her TV dad, will be her first kiss, even though she is told that it’s pretend, the actor Danny will actually kiss her sexually in the scene and so it is her first sexual kiss. Annie is increasingly flattered and praised and told that everyone loves her: the audience, directors etc. In turn Annie wants to please them even more, again I cannot help but draw parallels with grooming activity. Annie therefore agrees to acting being raped by her screen dad, Danny. It is therefore understandable, yet shocking how confused Annie is between what is real and what is acting.
There are some humorous moments in the play; sometimes I heard myself laughing out of discomfort, other times I laughed at the hypocrisy of the adults and a few times because I was simply appalled. I highly recommend this tightly written play portrayed by a superb cast.