The Theatreguide.London Review
Orange Tree Theatre Autumn 2014; Winter 2015
Reviewed first in 2014 - scroll down for comments on the 2015 revival.
This new play by Deborah Bruce has things to say about the limits and complexities of friendship, the limits and complexities of maternal love, and the way our own personal issues affect our ability to empathise with others.
In fact it has things to say about a lot of subjects – too many, perhaps, for a single play – and does justice to too few of them to be wholly satisfying. This is a play to be respected more for raising questions than for dealing with them.
A while back thirty-something Bea married an Australian and settled there with him and their two children. Now she has returned to England asking the emotional support of her lifelong friends Kate and Alex, who leap to the assumption that Bea is the victim of an evil husband who has taken her children from her.
We will learn eventually that that isn't the case at all, but much of the play is devoted to the friends' refusal and indeed inability to hear what Bea is actually saying and to the discovery that their need to see her as a wronged and loving mother betrays things about themselves they're unprepared to face.
Everyone in the play has a hole in their soul somewhere. Bea can't love, Kate cannot let herself imagine that she is ever wrong, Alex is so emotionally fragile she can barely keep up when the conversation is not about her, and the various men and one teenage boy in the play have their own problems none of the women seem particularly aware of.
Everybody wants to be nice to everybody else, but everybody is limited or blinkered in ways that sometimes make them more hurtful than supportive.
There is something a bit schematic about this set-up. You won't be able to guess every revelation or insight about the characters, but you will start keeping score, noticing that we haven't learned anything damaging about Character A yet, so she's overdue, or anticipating how Characters B, C and D will react to the news.
Enough of the issues raised are big enough to engage an audience, but too few are developed enough to give us the chance to think about them, and fewer still resolved in a dramatically satisfying way. You leave feeling the playwright might have been more successful had she been less ambitious.
Charlotte Gwinner's production keeps things moving, but too few in the cast are able to develop rounded characters out of what are in some cases single notes and in others a jumble of unintegrated pieces provided by the playwright.
Bea is defined by emotional disconnection, but Helen Baxendale keeps her simply a blank for too long. Clare Lawrence-Moody is more successful in making bossy Kate seriously unpleasant in the first part of the play than in winning sympathy for her when her own demons are exposed, and Emma Beattie seems unsure whether Alex is meant to be comic or pathetic.
The male roles are all more plot devices than characters, and the actors are given too little to be able to do much with.
There is talent in the writing, and certainly in the acting and direction. I will be happy to see Deborah Bruce's next play, when perhaps she will have her fertile imagination under tighter control, and I will happily see any of the cast again. But The Distance is more a work of promise than of achievement.
December 2015: A revival of Deborah Bruce's play makes it seem much stronger and unified than it did last year, largely due to a new cast led by Michelle Duncan as Bea and Charlotte Lucas as Kate. Duncan makes Bea's desperate need for acceptance (and, essentially, a hug) palpable, and if she doesn't actually grow to the point of not needing it, she does accept that she's never going to get it. Lucas makes Kate a monster incapable of hearing, much less processing anything she doesn't want to hear, and perhaps because of that, the play's attempt to soften her later doesn't quite work. Other elements that seemed like loose ends last year, including the men's roles, are more clearly integrated, fully justifying a revival that brings out the play's insights and emotional power so fully.
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Review - The Distance - Orange Tree Theatre 2014, 2015