Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Theatre review: Tomcat

After a few years based at the Finborough, the annual Papatango playwrighting prize has moved to a new home with roughly twice the seating capacity, in Southwark Playhouse's Little space. This year's winner, James Rushbrooke, taps into the current trend for plays about science with Tomcat. In a not-too-distant future, genetic screening of foetuses has resulted in the eradication of most illnesses, but at the cost of roughly one in four pregnancies being terminated - a legal requirement if a scan finds anything out of the ordinary. A subculture does exist that rejects this degree of state interference, so there are a few exceptions - one of them is 12-year-old Jessie (Eleanor Worthington-Cox,) who's been kept under observation by the authorities since they discovered her at the age of three. She's lived in the same windowless room since then, forbidden from touching people or making any sudden moves: According to her genetic makeup, she might be a psychopath.

The closest thing she has to normality is her key worker Tom (Brian Doherty,) an ex-army orderly who treats her like one of his own daughters.

The person who's really in charge is Caroline (Diana Kent,) but having supervised the project since its beginning, she's now being moved away from direct contact with Jessie. The new head doctor is Charlie (Edward Harrison,) whose easy rapport with his patient conceals a particularly cold and clinical approach to his work. He thinks Caroline has spent too long sitting back and observing, and that they'll learn more by provoking Jessie, as well as subjecting her to increasingly invasive tests.

Rushbrooke's first full-length play, Tomcat is impressive, and quickly draws you into its numerous ethical minefields. Kate Hewitt's production plays out effectively on a simple traverse set from Lily Arnold, a suitable setting for the matter-of-fact way some deeply uncomfortable ideologies are explored. An early sign of how chilling this future is comes when we hear of the death of the last human with Downs Syndrome - Caroline, who knew her, describes a lovely old lady she liked, but she too joins in the general celebration that the condition has been eradicated. This idea that the scientists making the rules see the disease rather than the person who has it follows throughout the play, with Charlie unable to sympathise when his wife (Susan Stanley) is legally ordered to have an abortion, and eventually unwilling even to agree with Caroline's description of Jessie as a little girl, seeing only the psychopath he expects to emerge.

Needless to say, from what we see of Jessie, the line between latent psychopathy and the behaviour of a pre-teen who's been imprisoned all her life with no explanation is impossible to draw, and though we do see characters with a bit of humanity, Charlie's behaviour proves that genetic screening can't spot the worst in human nature. I can find little to fault with Tomcat - the power dynamic between the two doctors isn't that well established to start with (it's a long while before it's suggested Caroline's departure isn't voluntary) and Hewitt's production could have been a tiny bit speedier, but that's about it. It opens up as many avenues of discussion as you can get without overloading a 90-minute piece, and the focused performances draw you into its controversial science.

Tomcat by James Rushbrooke is booking until the 21st of November at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

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