Tuesday 28 February 2023

Theatre review: Akedah

Named after a Biblical term from Abraham's fakeout sacrifice of Isaac, Michael John O’Neill's Akedah follows two sisters who grew up in a turbulent household - their father was abusive, their mother a prostitute who abandoned her youngest daughter in a crackhouse and was never seen again. Gill (Amy Molloy,) the oldest, was 15 at the time and tried to look after her much younger sister for a while, but after their father died Kelly was taken into care, and the sisters rarely communicated after that. One night Gill gets a cryptic phone call from her sister asking her to come to her, and she manages to track down Kelly (Ruby Campbell,) now 18, living at a Pentecostal megachurch on the Northern Irish coast, where she's been since leaving her foster home two years earlier. Gill thinks she's there to rescue her sister from being groomed, but the truth may be more personal.

It's never entirely clear why the pair broke off contact so completely, but it may have come from their polarised opinions about their mother and father, each exclusively blaming a different parent for their bad childhoods.

This is part of what comes up in their initial conversation, and seems to be an insurmountable hurdle between them as Gill tries to get to the bottom of what she suspects is a cult that's exploiting her sister. But her arguments fall flat because she's not as well-adjusted as she pretends, and has been having occasional blackouts and hallucinations. In fact, Kelly denies ever calling her, and it's possible her sister dreamed it, and has subconsciously been trying to confront her own past.

Lucy Morrison's production is very strongly acted, but the cast are fighting against a relentlessly bleak play that feels desperately in need of a change of pace and energy but ploughs through for far too long without them. When a refresh does eventually come, with the arrival of recent church convert Sarah (Mairead McKinley,) it's too late and the plot twist too contrived. Naomi Dawson's set design is in traverse, the configuration of choice when you want to see which scenes are making half the audience nod off, so I know it's not just me who found this hard work; and apart from both stories ending with a lamb taking the brunt of the punishment, I'm not sure what the significance of the Biblical title is either.

Akedah by Michael John O'Neill is booking until the 18th of March at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

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