Graham Reid is a playwright of no mean skill in exploring interpersonal tensions, particularly within claustrophobic family frameworks – his Billy tetralogy for BBC television in the 1980s stands as admirable proof of that. All the more frustrating, then, that the final scenes of his latest work Love contain one of the most agonising examples I have seen of a play slithering out of its author's control.
Its first act sets out the lines of confrontation between domineering mother Mo and daughter Violet, as the latter returns from ten years in Canada to sit by the hospital bedside of her sister Joanne, seriously injured in a car crash. The role of Mo seems to have been written with long-time Reid associate Gwen Taylor in mind; she expertly and commandingly brings out the sense of a mother keeping a smiling but steely face upon all matters, be they the present tragedy or the old coals which are inevitably raked over by Violet's return.
Alexandra Mathie as Violet makes the mistake of generally playing her accent rather than her lines. The resultant narrowness of intonation means that Violet, although more in touch than Mo with her own emotions, often seems so much less impassioned that she might simply be spouting canards of North American relationship-speak.
Reid's script is likewise unsure. His undoubted brilliance at crystallising situations with a single understated line shines through at moments: at one point Mo remarks that, if she were given the choice between a million pounds and hearing her daughter say, "Hello, Mum," she wouldn't hesitate for an instant, whereupon Violet immediately but gently replies, "Hello, Mum." Such moments of pure epiphany, though, are few. For the rest of the time, mother and daughter repeat the same tussles either too vaguely or too exhaustively, with father and brother on hand merely to broaden the essentially two-handed thrust of the play.
The second act – in which a conscious but amnesiac Joanne has been installed
in the family home – brings the dramatic catastrophe, in both the technical
and qualitative senses of the term. This is difficult to discuss without
committing the grave sin of giving away the plot of a "mystery"; suffice
to say that Violet discovers that the patient's memory-loss is not what
This ought to be the catalyst for Mo, in particular, at least to confront the demon of her own aggressive-defensiveness towards all her family. Instead, a phase of even more virulent stonewalling gives way to modern melodrama, with a superficial final "resolution" achieved by a deus ex machina device with which Reid insults his own abilities as a writer.
Les Waters directs gamely, and Idit Nathan's set keeps the action to the fore of the Courtyard Theatre's deep stage, but overall Mo's grief for her daughter was almost matched by mine for the least satisfying play by an established writer which I have seen this year.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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