The Theatreguide.London Review
Old Vic Theatre February 2018
Alan Ayckbourn's latest was in the form of two full-length plays when it premiered in Edinburgh last summer, but it has been condensed down to one just-under-four-hour evening for a criminally short Old Vic run that will probably be over by the time you read this.
While it could have benefited from even further cutting, it is a remarkable work, engrossing and exciting on almost every level through most of its length.
This is not the familiar Ayckbourn territory of sad laughter at the barely-hidden pains of middle-class suburbia. Instead, he turns here to the realm of myth and fable, with an almost fairy-tale epic of the culture-healing power of love.
We are in a post-apocalyptic-plague dystopia in which what is left of humanity has been strictly divided by sexes, the men in one realm and women in the other, each group forming homosexual bondings (When women want babies, they import sperm from the other side of the divide).
Children are raised by their two mothers until the boys are teens, at which time they depart for the men's world. The evils of sex having been a cause of the plague, both communities live in an Amish-like colourless repression.
And then one boy meets one girl and they discover the joys of heterosexual love.
The authorities on both sides of the wall so badly mishandle the prosecution of the pair and everyone who knew about them that the whole social construct comes crumbling down, clearing the way for a more healthy society and sexuality all around.
It's a thoroughly accessible and agreeable fable, with obvious debts to The Handmaid's Tale and The Village, and its presentation carries it even higher.
The whole story is seen through the eyes of the boy's younger sister, and playwright Ayckbourn, director Annabel Bolton and actress Erin Doherty combine talents to create one of the most believable and adorable young girls since The Member Of The Wedding.
Seen first as a preteen and then through her early adolescence, the girl has never known anything but the divided society and not only accepts it but is clearly shaped by it.
Assuming she will grow up to have a wife, her budding sexuality takes the form of crushes on one girl after another. And, in an extension of what goes on in girls' schools everywhere, she finds herself arbitrarily chosen as the designated victim of the bullying cool kids.
Erin Doherty fully captures the innocent wide-eyed wonder of the child who sees everything and misinterprets most of it, who is buffeted by emotions and hormones her society denies and still manages to maintain a remarkably even (if often misdirected) course.
There's more than a passing debt to Adrian Mole here, in the playwright's capturing of the adolescent's perceptions and expressions, but the bulk of the credit must go to the actress for making her so beautifully, lovably real.
Annabel Bolton's staging and Laura Hopkins' design make the most of large staging effects – among other elements, there's a just-offstage choir filling the play with Christopher Nightingale's richly romantic music – without ever losing the intimate view of the characters.
Erin Doherty so dominates our perception and emotions – we mourn every time she goes offstage – that other characters keep fading into the background. But there are strong supporting performances by Jake Davies and Weruche Opia as the lovers and Thusitha Jayasundera as the most hard-nosed of the authority figures.
Not least among the production's remarkable achievements is how quickly and engrossingly most of the long evening goes by. Only in the last hour (which already shows signs of heavy condensing, with reams of plot being raced through) do things start to drag and feel anticlimactic.
The Divide is imperfect, but unless you run right out to catch one of the final performances you will have missed one of the defining theatrical events of the year.
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