Monday, 29 June 2015

Theatre review: Luna Gale

An uneven play but one with a lot of positives at Hampstead Theatre, where Michael Attenborough directs Rebecca Gilman's drama Luna Gale. Caroline (Sharon Small) is a social worker in an Iowa district still recovering from a scandal in which her former boss managed to lose the records of dozens of at-risk children. Caroline herself was not implicated, but it has meant her department now has to pass all decisions by state-appointed supervisor Cliff (Ed Hughes.) It means her decades' worth of experience is still being questioned when she deals with the case of Luna, the baby of teenage parents who recently and unexpectedly developed a meth habit. While Karlie (Rachel Redford) and Peter (Alexander Arnold) undergo counselling and wait for a rehab slot to become available, Luna is to be cared for by her grandmother Cindy (Caroline Faber.)

But Karlie is violently opposed to her Evangelical Christian mother being given her daughter, and soon Cindy is talking about adopting the baby and cutting its parents off. As Caroline starts to think she misjudged Cindy when she assessed her as a suitable guardian, her efforts to make sure Karlie and Peter get their daughter back start to embrace less ethical tactics.


There seems to be a feeling that Luna Gale is rather bland programming from Hampstead, a fairly generic play about child abuse - a serious topic but one on which better plays than this have been written. And it's a response I can partly understand, as it's hard to call this a must-see, with much that seems familiar. The opening couple of scenes in particular have a feel of flatly and perfunctorily setting up the story as Caroline goes through the necessary questions and ticks the right boxes. And a sub-plot about one of her seeming success stories, Lourdes (Abigail Rose - one of my joint Best Newcomer winners from 2013) reaching 18 and being sent out into the world, never feels well-integrated.


But it's worth sticking with because Gilman is quite good at little twists and turns that send the story off in new directions, and the way Caroline's experience and instincts lead to secrets being unearthed is often surprising and satisfying. It's also interesting to see the writer take on the way churches try to use their right not to face discrimination, to discriminate in their turn and get everything ruled in their favour: Though Caroline is not infallible, it's hard not to side with her when Cindy's pastor (Corey Johnson) is allowed to harass her in her own office; the scene features a stunning moment where the social worker effectively compares god to a paedophile, that had me wondering how that went down in America, if it had been left in the production at all.


I've not always been impressed by Small but here she gives the best performance I've seen from her, in a generally strong cast in which Arnold also particularly stands out: After his initial, virtually catatonic appearance, he gradually and subtly reveals the things Peter will put himself through for his girlfriend and daughter. A couple of obvious and soapy plot developments are frustrating, but while at the interval's big cliffhanger I thought I knew where Gilman, and the lead character's hubris, were going to take the story, I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong in the second act.

Luna Gale by Rebecca Gilman is booking until the 18th of July at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval

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