It's rarer than you might imagine, the theatrical equivalent of the "woman's novel". "Woman's", not "women's", for that has connotations of agenda and stridency. I mean that territory which is neither high-literature nor chick-lit, not tub-thumping or po-faced, but specifically female in the attitudes and issues (with a small "i") it ponders. Falling, Shelley Silas's first full-length play to be staged (as the second in the Bush Theatre's "Naked Talent" season of short runs for new writers), positions itself fairly squarely in that dramatic area, and I intend no condescension in saying so.
Silas looks at first to be casting her net adventurously wide. She uses four characters: Linda and Pete, who have just suffered their fifth miscarriage on an IVF programme and may be about to give up, Linda's elder sister Kate, and Kate's sixteen-year-old daughter Grace. The opening couple of scenes introduce every major aspect of female biology – fecundity and childlessness, menarche and menopause, differing attitudes across and between the generations – and does so with a beguiling ease and fluidity.
But when Grace announces that she's just started having sex, and whether seriously or jokingly propositions Pete, it rapidly becomes a solid bet that (without giving away too much of the plot) things are going to move in one of only two directions, and that either will involve morning sickness. To her credit, Silas chooses the less sensational route, but it still means that the focus tightens on to Linda in particular, as she has to confront just how dearly she wants a child at the age of 40, and what each path might mean to her relatives and her partner.
John Tiffany's direction matches the unshowy tone of the writing, and both are complemented by a brace of top-notch central performances. Abby Ford (one of the best things about Jon Fosse's The Girl On The Sofa in this year's Edinburgh International Festival) is vivacious yet admirably controlled as Grace, and Patricia Kerrigan underplays magnificently as Linda, with some of the finest "listening and observation" acting I've seen in quite some time. Their dynamic together is encapsulated in a minimal three-word exchange in the second act. Grace, trying to decide what course to take, asks, "Did you [feel sick during pregnancy]?", and in Linda's simple reply, "Once," Silas's writing and Kerrigan's performance mesh powerfully to let a world of unspoken loss seep through the minimal response.
In many ways it's a wonderful piece of work all round, but after a while it rather draws away from the XY-chromosomed component of the audience. No amount of delicacy in the writing and in Adam Kotz's characterisation can hide the fact that Pete diminishes from a person to a series of cues for Linda, providing first temptation, then sudden conflict, and finally support and solidarity. Of course, though, Silas is simply doing her bit to redress the imbalance amid so many plays examining various facets of maleness. The predominantly male tribe of critics seldom comments on that, so why should Falling be singled out for simply doing likewise? It's an excellent début, and there's an end of it.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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