Finborough Theatre Spring 2016
In a collapsing economy (Spain 2013, though it could as easily be Britain 2008) a young woman is lucky enough to find a job, as PA to a top banker.
Her mother is at first suspicious, accusing her of sleeping her way into the job, and then demanding, insisting that she move back home to pay her parents' mortgage and use her contacts to get mother a job.
But what first seems merely typical and almost comic maternal guilt-tripping turns darker as mother reveals that she has been manipulating daughter into unconsciously assisting in a terrorist plot.
Alexandra Wood's play takes the maxim that all politics is personal to one possible extreme, positing a situation in which there is no distinction between the personal and the political.
The mother can sincerely love her daughter and still exploit her, both for her personal economic benefit and for political and criminal ends, and the daughter's admiration for her boss is more than a little tinged with romantic feelings.
The playwright may be asking too much of a 75 minute two-hander, that it be both a satirical comedy of family relations and a drama of criminal intrigue, and that it encompass politics, economics, morality, idealism, family dynamics and the complex network of interrelationships among them, all in the occasional meetings of a mother and daughter, and all while also retaining some uncertainty about whether everything we are told by one or the other is to be believed.
But if Merit is not entirely successful in exploring and connecting all these themes, it does at least raise them, and leave a lot for the audience to think about.
Perhaps the biggest sacrifice the play makes in trying to say too much is in the two characters themselves. By hanging so much meaning, and so many meanings, on the human story of the two women before us, the playwright creates problems the admirable actresses can't fully solve.
The audience may find it difficult to accept the mother as a terrorist when she has been so fully defined as the semi-comic guilt-tripper, and the question of whether the daughter is indeed sleeping with her boss is left unanswered and ultimately irrelevant.
Karen Ascoe (mother) and Ellie Turner (daughter), along with director Tom Littler, have to work so hard to maintain a certain unknowability about both women (How consciously manipulative is the mother, how naive the daughter?) that they never become much more than types.
And so a play about the fallacy of trying to separate big ideas from personal dramas is more successful in suggesting its big ideas than bringing alive its personal dramas.
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Review - Merit - Finborough Theatre 2016