Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Theatre review: Lela & co

Real-life atrocities are given an additional level of horror by the smiling face painted on them by Cordelia Lynn's Lela & co. Ana Inés Jabares Pita's black, white and red set feels like something out of a toybox or a circus, a setting for Lela (Katie West) to tell a fairytale-like life story of growing up in the mountains of an unnamed, distant country. There's early signs of an underlying darkness she takes for granted, as she cheerfully recounts how her father would occasionally get violent with his wife and daughters, but the worst is to come once Lela reaches the age of 15. More importantly, this is when her older sister gets married: Her new brother-in-law may or may not have sexually abused Lela; what he definitely does do is arrange a marriage for her, possibly for a fee, with a friend from a different part of the country. In the aftermath of a civil war, the girl finds herself isolated from her family with an abusive husband.

From the open mountain landscape of her childhood, Lela's world keeps shrinking until it becomes the windowless back room she's imprisoned in, her husband inviting "business associates" to have their way with her.

Lynn's script steers clear of overtly suggesting where the true story might have taken place, but there's references to an ongoing civil war that ended with foreign countries sending troops in, who are still there now as a peacekeeping force until the region stabilises; it's certainly not hard to make inferences about where the fairytale land might actually represent. Lela opens and closes the show by saying birth and death are women's domain, but everything in between belong to the men. Accordingly, if this is a circus David Mumeni is the gold-suited ringmaster, standing in for all the men in Lela's life - most of them malevolent, or at best friendly but ineffectual.

West is impressive as Lela, her story of abuse and sexual violence made even more disturbing by the saccharine - sometimes literally, in the lollipops and candy floss that take on sinister meanings - style of the show and her permanent rictus smile, even when she's telling the audience she wishes she could claw our eyes out and eat them. This brave front is so important to her that Jude Christian's production has the most horrific events take place in prolonged moments of complete darkness, as if it's important that we know Lela's story but her grief over it is private. It also means David McSeveney's sound design can provide intense, chilling moments in the darkness.

Particularly heartbreaking is Lela's obviously doomed hope that a soldier from the peacekeeping force, who treats her much better than the rest of the "business associates," might actually be a way out. The disconnect between the subject matter and the way it's presented makes Lela & co a particularly powerful evening, dark and, although Lela does eventually escape, devoid of any real hope under the upbeat façade; but the committed performances and stylish production keep us horribly involved in the character's story.

Lela & co by Cordelia Lynn is booking until the 3rd of October at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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