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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Belongings
Trafalgar Studios    Summer 2011

A special delight of theatregoing is encountering a first play that may be imperfect but that shows its writer to be a real playwright, one whose next play is likely to be extraordinary. 

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm has written comedy sketches and panto scripts, but this is her first serious play, and you will want to see it, not just to be able to say you were there at the start of her career, but because it's a quite good play on its own terms. 

Yes, there are flaws, but they are all those of a talented writer not yet fully in control of her craft. Malcolm sometimes has her characters express her ideas a little too baldly, she relies on a too-predictable plot turn that you spent much of the play hoping she'd find a way to avoid, and some of her themes aren't fully integrated with the others. 

But she creates characters you believe in and care for, writes dialogue that rings true and even has touches of realistic eloquence, and addresses big subjects that may be just a bit beyond her but that show an admirable vision and ambition.

A female soldier returns from Afghanistan and attempts to rejoin her family, in much the same way, as flashbacks show us, that she tried to find a home in the army. 

There the problem was that all her attempts to be one of the guys could not blind the male soldiers to her gender or keep sex from muddying their friendships.

Here the home she's returning to is too complicated, with her mother absent, a former school friend (toward whom she feels more than friendly) now living with her father, and them involved in selling pornography, which the soldier's own confused feelings about sex make her unable to accept. 

So the play is about sex, and war, and the role of women in a male world, and the nature of family, and the need everyone feels to belong someplace. And what keeps it from spinning off in too many directions is not just Malcolm's skill in almost keeping it all together, but her realisation that it is the last of those, the purely human story of wanting to connect to someone or something, that must dominate and be the centre of our experience. 

Whatever else the play is about, it is the soldier's pain and hunger for belonging that drive the play and hold our attention and make us really care.

Along the way there are solidly-written scenes that ring true and draw us into the play's emotional reality, including the just-a-little-too-forced joshing with a male soldier and a word game with the other girl that develops an ambiguous but highly-charged sexual subtext. 

Belongings was developed in Hampstead Theatre's workshop program, and Malcolm credits director Maria Aberg and her actors for guiding her rewriting and shaping of the script. 

Certainly Joanna Horton as the soldier contributes a lot to our sense of the character's deep unhappiness and yearning for something she can't quite verbalise. 

Solid support comes from Ian Bailey as the well-meaning father who just can't see the gap between his perceptions and his daughter's, Kirsty Bushell as a woman who has made her own peace with some of the issues that still bother her friend, and Calum Callaghan as a fellow soldier who finds he cannot ignore the fact that his buddy is female.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Belongings - Trafalgar Studios 2011