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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Blackbird
Albery Theatre Spring 2006

Fifteen years ago a forty-year-old man had consensual sex with a twelve-year-old girl. After a prison sentence and years of painfully establishing himself in a new life, she suddenly reappears to confront him.

David Harrower's play, first produced at the Edinburgh Festival last August (See our original review below), is certainly passion-filled, with ample opportunities for actors Roger Allam and Jodhi May to quite literally tear up the scenery. Whether it adds up to much is another question.

Harrower does offer two convincing psychological and emotional insights - first, that the trauma fifteen years ago was not the sex act but the confused emotional states that led each of them toward it; and second, that the greatest damage done to both of them lay not in the brief episode then but in the years of torment since. But beyond that his psychology and his purpose are muddied.

In a programme note the playwright acknowledges that, inspired by a vaguely similar news story,  he wrote the play to try to figure out what the characters could have been thinking and feeling, before, during and after. And I'm not convinced that he has.

In facing each other and remembering the event and its aftermath, the two characters swing wildly through a jumble of emotions. In the course of a few moments, she is angry, despairing, sympathetic, imperious and seductive, while another short sequence will see him go from contrition to outrage to collapse to lust.

Now, such a jumble might be clinically valid, but a playwright's job is to make it theatrically believable. (In Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream you don't have to believe in fairies, but you have to believe that if there were fairies, they would behave like this.). And while Roger Allam, who is the stronger actor of the two, does work hard to tie all the facets of his character together, Jodhi May seems happy to play each moment at full throttle and damn the consistency.

This, of course, is also a failing of the director, Peter Stein, who clearly has directed the actors in a series of independent beats, and you can see the moments in which he said to them 'O.K. You're going to stop feeling that emotion now, and for the next few pages you're going to feel this one.'

Through much of the sound and fury the basic situation and the audience's hope that the author will eventually tie the bits together carry the play. But instead, the last half-hour is a string of increasingly unlikely melodramatic plot twists, culminating in a clumsy final scene that virtually shouts 'Author didn't know how to end this play.'

Roger Allam is one of those actors I would happily watch in almost anything. Jodhi May has undeniable energy and stage presence. That may be enough to make the evening worth your while. But I'd rather wait to see each of them in their next projects.

Gerald Berkowitz

Our August 2005 Edinburgh Festival review:

A young woman and a much older man are alone in a workplace staff room at the end of the day. They are both clearly uncomfortable in each other's presence, and yet they remain where they are, trapped by an unexplained bond. Without giving too much of the story away, we soon discover that Ray was convicted and jailed after he ran away with Una when she was only 12 years old. Fifteen years later, he is still trying to forget but she feels a desire to reconnect. David Harrower's play is a trail of speculation, a 'what if' scenario based largely on his own imagination. He blatantly uses every trick in the book to build up to the various denouements and flashpoints in the couple's story, but ultimately it boils down to an arrogant academic exercise. After all, there are more appropriate devices than the rape and kidnap of a child to dissect the struggle for domination between the sexes or offer fantasies of sexual submission to a secretly titilated Middle England. Except perhaps for Una's short pink skirt, there is no sign whatsoever of director Peter Stein's hand. That the play is a success is thanks entirely to Jodhi May and Roger Allam's awesome stamina - despite a shaky first ten minutes or so, they sustain their roles, holding the audience's attention throughout. No mean feat when you consider that this is a leaden two-hander of two hours with no interval and set in a single room. If you find an appeal in Nabakov's similarly self-justifactory Lolita, then you'll just love the sequel served up here. If, however, you're looking for answers to intelligently posed dilemmas, you'll come away cheated by writer, director and producer. Nick Awde

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Review - Blackbird - Albery 2006