Theatre 503, London – until 13 April.
Britain is a nasty, hostile landscape of bureaucracy for children in care. Their lives are at the mercy of under-resourced local councils, overworked social workers and teachers, and a hegemonic class system that sees them as unwelcome, sub-human burdens. The Sharky twins, the heroes of Ross Willis’ “some sort of fairytale”, fight to defy the government’s disregard for the hardship they endure and their odds of survival in this genre-bending, complex critique of the county’s failings to look after those who need it most.
Bobbing around an amoebic womb of a set, designed by Basia Binowska, coloured in soothing blues, pinks and purples, the twins are so full of love that they sparkle. There is glitter and shine everywhere, representing children’s unconditional need for affection and their generosity in returning it.
They can’t wait to meet their mum and take on the world – but their plans are tragically thwarted. One of them goes into the care system, represented metaphorically by a fantastical woodland where all the animals and trees look take in the human world’s abandoned children. Sophie Melville as A is raised by a wolf who cuddles her, cleans her and teaches her to hunt. The other twin, Erin Doherty as Z, is raised by the Boney Man and Soggy Woman, but even though they are people, she is persistently unloved and not looked after.
Willis alternates the telling of their stories after they are separated, with the two actors playing all the characters the twins encounter in their neglected, forgotten lives. Lisa Spirling’s playful direction repeatedly crashes through the fourth wall, introduces props and keeps the actors moving pretty much constantly. It gives a confrontationally vulnerable face to those easily brushed until the carpet by red tape and unforgiving legislation. Their pace and energy fights through the sprawling, tangled script that could easily be dragged down by its wordiness.
Doherty and Melville are a magnificent and magnetic pairing; I wholly endorse them playing all double-acts in the future. They are versatile and utterly compelling, whether embodying a mother wolf, a Science teacher, a butcher at Waitrose’s meat counter, or a tree. Their transitions from silly to serious, jokey to mournful, and everything in between are remarkable to behold. They demonstrate a remarkable level of talent and malleability, and are the machine that drives the production through its dramaturgical density.
Despite this being the first play from Willis and certainly not a flawless one, it demonstrates a laudable ambition and sense of scale. There are moments that move, and others that evoke laughter. Big ideas and goals underpin the writing that experience will help to shape his talent into powerful, streamlined theatre.