Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Theatre review: One For Sorrow

Some day I’ll see a play where well-meaning but essentially ineffectual liberals don’t turn into dribbling racists within minutes of being placed in an extreme situation; Cordelia Lynn’s One For Sorrow is not that play. A bomb has gone off in a West London nightclub, and terrorists are still in there with hundreds of hostages, threatening to detonate a second one. A middle-class family living in the area have effectively barricaded themselves into their home as the sound of sirens and helicopters comes in from outside, and while younger daughter Chloe (Kitty Archer) walks into the living room every few minutes with an updated death toll, her sister Imogen (Pearl Chanda) has attempted to be more proactive: In a plot inspired by a real event after a bombing in France when people opened their doors to strangers who’d been left stranded and scared, she’s posted #OpenDoor on Twitter, to indicate that anyone feeling unsafe nearby could go to her for help.

The family are also waiting for news of Imogen and Chloe’s cousin, who they think might have gone to the club; so when someone actually takes up the Twitter offer, Imogen convinces her parents Emma (Sarah Woodward) and Bill (Neil Dudgeon) to let her give out their address.

Consciously or unconsciously, they’re expecting their guest to be a young white woman like their missing relative, so when John (Irfan Shamji) turns up it takes them by surprise. Lynn’s play is very uneven, and though it improves the start was very hard-going for me because the family are written to be incredibly irritating, especially the daughters: Chloe is an overbearing mix of absolute unearned confidence and neediness, while Imogen is like the personification of the Tracey Ullman sketch about the support group for the too-woke; not only is everyone (including John, who she’s just met) unable to say anything she won’t somehow take furious offence at, she’s turned into a bundle of neurosis by the fear that she might accidentally have a thought that doesn’t meet her own standards.

For the second time in as many months, Irfan Shamji’s presence tangibly elevates a show, and his character’s arrival kicks James Macdonald’s production up a notch. Softly-spoken but enigmatic, John is instantly likeable but also raises questions such as why won’t he take his hooded jacket off indoors, why he’s come here instead of to his own house which by all accounts isn’t that far away, and if he’s one for sorrow, ain’t it too, too bad ‘bout love? Lynn does somewhat want to have her cake and eat it with this thriller-like element of the story – on the one hand critical of people making snap judgements on race, on the other any sense of threat she hints at depends on preconceptions about how John looks and what he might be hiding.

It also felt like too major an omission that we never touched on why exactly he was afraid to be out on the street – was it just fear of being caught up in the next explosion, or of how people might react to a Middle Eastern-looking man with a rucksack in the middle of an attack? Lynn’s style mixes fairly naturalistic dialogue with moments, particularly from John, that go for a more poetic tone – the weeping walls of Laura Hopkins’ set mirror this occasional drifting into a dreamlike state. One For Sorrow is definitely a mixed bag, a lot of which works, but which at 2 and a half hours feels like it’s overstretched its story.

One For Sorrow by Cordelia Lynn is booking until the 11th of August at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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