Blackbird

David Harrower

East Riding Theatre Company

East Riding Theatre

From 11 February 2016 to 27 February 2016

Review by Richard Vergette

Blackbird by David Harrower is a relentless 90-minute two-hander which, with ruthless intelligence, examines the fallout of an abusive relationship 15 years after the event.

Ray—or Peter, according to his new identity—is a 50-something office worker and Una his former lover. She tracks him down to his new place of work to confront him. Although this is one of the most 'talked about' plays of the last 20 years, the moment of revelation that Una was 12 at the time of their 'affair' is still shocking. Indeed 'Shock' is the first line of the play.

However, this is not a play which relies on tabloid responses to explore its subject matter. Rather its evisceration of Ray's reasoned excuses makes his actions and choices more contemptible than a less thorough treatment.

This is not an easy watch for the audience at East Riding Theatre. Yet this relatively new theatre (just over a year old) continues to be successful in drawing in large audiences, however challenging the repertoire. Opening night saw a near enough full house.

In the role of the abusive Ray, Malcolm Tomlinson's soft spoken and unassuming delivery makes the assault on the audience ever more complex. How could such a 'nice' man be so monstrous? His simpering, apologetic demeanour allows us to come dangerously close to sympathising with him, but it is both the skill of the play as well as Tomlinson's interpretation that forces us to confront the reality of abuse: that it is not necessarily the province of the dirty mac brigade or even the social media prowler but, literally, the guy next door.

As Una, the abused child turned damaged woman, Hester Arden is superb. It is a deliberate ambiguity of the play that we're not sure why she has tracked down Ray, but Arden carries the ambiguity with utter conviction. At turns she is repulsed, accusative, destructive, pleading and ultimately, desperate. In the hands of a lesser actor the role could be one that lends itself to overplaying; instead Arden is the embodiment of a destroyed life whose feisty youth may have promised much but has matured into heartbreaking self disgust and fear.

Andy Pearson directs with an admirable sense of purpose and, most crucially, pace. For all that it is a straight though 90 minutes, there is a danger that the play can drag, given the length of the somewhat set piece monologues half way through. He doesn't allow this and whilst the emotional intensity is never diluted the production is never self indulgent or 'worthy'.

Once again, Ed Ullyart turns in a masterful set design. The detritus of the office, reflecting the destruction of the lives or the two characters, is palpable. This is a set you can almost smell; in the best possible sense it is utterly vile.

Although for many years Blackbird has been regarded as the definitive play about abusive relationships, it's not timeless. Recent legislation and high profile cases make it feel, at times, a little dated although it's only 11 years old. However, for its raw depiction of damaged humanity, it takes some beating. ERT's production does it full justice.