Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 4 June
, 2007

A few years ago we had no real sense of verbatim theatre as a genre; now, the Tricycle Theatre organises a tribunal of its own so that it can stage the transcripts, and here the increasingly interesting Dennis Kelly mimics the verbatim form in order to indict the gaze of the public eye itself.

Donna McAuliffe was first convicted of murdering her two infant children under the influence of a newly identified psychological disorder, then freed when an appeal dismissed the expert psychological testimony. Taking Care Of Baby follows Donna's readjustment, the ambitious ascent of her mother in local politics, and the doctor whose pet syndrome has been discredited. The first thing we see is a video caption: "The following has been taken word for word from interviews and correspondence..." It is repeated several times through the play, but in increasingly garbled form, as the hand of the supposedly impartial interviewer grows ever clearer. We hear his disembodied voice more and more often, interrupting the doctor almost Paxman-style whilst affecting to remain calm and mild; when Donna's estranged husband agrees to an interview consisting only of "yes"/"no" questions, it is evident that the questions can only be what this Big Brother persona "Dennis Kelly" chooses them to be. (I write this feelingly, as one who was stitched up several years ago by the off-camera presence in a fly-on-the-wall TV "documentary".)

The McAuliffe case is loosely based on some similar recent high-profile instances; Abigail Davies gives a remarkable performance, showing us the cracks in Donna's personality and her wounds without making it all about these flaws. If the characters of doctor and (especially) mother grow progressively less believable as their conduct is pushed to extremes, this is less important because by then we are aware that the characters really under examination are not on the stage. They are, firstly, the person assembling and editing the story, and secondly we who devour news, "reality" stories and all kinds of celebrity with diminishing discrimination. "The average broadsheet contains more information than someone in the Middle Ages would have assimilated in their entire lifetime," Dr Millard tells us; this may be another invented factoid, but it rings true. Politico, chat-show guest, scientist, murderer, innocent... all are equal grist to our info-mill.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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