Sunday, 6 March 2016

Theatre review: Merit

Alexandra Wood’s Merit takes place in Spain, where the recession has hit jobs particularly hard, and opens with Sofia (Ellie Turner) a few weeks into a new, well-paid job with a high-powered banker. Her mother, '80s blouse-wearer Patricia (Karen Ascoe,) confronts Sofia with her suspicions about how her daughter got a PA job that, by her own admission, other people were better-qualified for. Did she offer her new boss Antonio something extra in return for a job so well paid it's now not only supporting her, but also helping pay her parents' mortgage? Although offended, Sofia doesn't actually deny the accusation, instead moving away from home to sleep on a friend's couch. Over the next few months Patricia tries to reconnect with her daughter, turning up outside her work, informing her of the ways the recession is affecting them - her father first losing his job, then attempting suicide - and asking to meet Antonio, because if he really did give Sofia her job on merit, presumably he'll give one to her equally-qualified mother.

This kind of flawed logic (it ignores the fact that Sofia's job was a genuine opening that she applied for) is something that becomes more and more typical of Patricia as the play goes on, and is one of the reasons I quickly lost patience with both the character and the play itself.

Merit opens with a very strong scene in the initial confrontation between mother and daughter, and its suggestion that in a financial environment where jobs are like gold-dust, doing questionable things to get one will become more common. But Wood quickly loses focus, wanting to explore every aspect of the recession, and with only two people to work with her characters' personalities vary wildly from one scene to the next as they become mouthpieces. Another promising subject, of the wealthy using charity donations to ease their conscience while they live in comfort, also becomes horribly muddled: Antonio apparently gives away a quarter of his income, and it's hard to sympathise with Patricia's criticism of this when she's simultaneously throwing a tantrum because her daughter (who's paying 100% of her mortgage at this point) won't also give her several grand to travel to a family wedding.

Patricia's wildly varying personality does turn out to have some significance as we find out about her involvement in a violent protest group, but again it's hard to take this as the plot twist it's presented as: Put simply, if a woman who's spent the whole play with an eerie insane grin on her face, behaving unpredictably and habitually stalking both Sofia and Antonio, turns out to be a violent loon I'm unlikely to be too surprised. So despite a solid production from Tom Littler on a nicely flexible traverse stage from Phil Lindley, I failed to see much merit in Merit.

Merit by Alexandra Wood is booking until the 26th of March at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Robert Workman.

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