Blackbird

David Harrower

Albery Theatre

(2006)

Review by Philip Fisher

This 5* Edinburgh Festival hit has become even better and that is saying something! The improvement in the world-renowned Peter Stein's production may owe a little to a stalls seat rather than circle but much to his meticulous direction of two actors who must surely be on awards lists come the end of the year.

Scottish playwright David Harrower has bravely chosen to address and dissect a taboo subject that even his characters dare not name. That he has done so with remarkable sensitivity and minimal prurience is much to his credit.

The emotional reaction that now greets stories of men who sleep with underage women is understandable but when it reaches vigilante proportions might be regarded as excessive. That there could be love involved doesn't seem to occur to anybody.

Every move in the opening scene is perfectly choreographed by Stein as Peter, a tubby, round-shouldered factory manager in his mid-50s meets sexy young Una in the staff canteen. Watched by passing workers, they wander round in detritus symbolising their messy lives and oh so slowly, Harrower reveals the historic bond that irrevocably ties these two very different people together.

Fifteen years before, they had been lovers for a heady three-month period culminating in a trip to a seedy B&B in Tynemouth. This would be an unexceptional story had Una not been twelve at the time and family friend Ray, as he was then called, forty.

After initial power games, all won by a lady far brighter than her former lover, both regress into an emotional remembrance of their affair and its dramatic ending, recollected in anything but Wordsworthian tranquillity.

Harrower asks who suffered more, the man who spent four years reviled in jail but then got a new identity, or the child. She, on the other hand, had stayed put and was humiliated every time that she left her house or visited the psychiatrist.

Throughout this interaction, the relationship struggles to settle. There is a mix of hate, antipathy, love and even, in Una's case, taunting seduction. Somehow, Harrower gets the balance right so that the later scenes, when the mix changes and develops, are believable, and the introduction of a third character heartbreaking.

At the end of a strange, unscripted and possibly cathartic, final battle in a car park, one is left assessing a play about love, paedophilia and the reaction of a society that, in issues of this type, is all too happy to be led by the nose by the gutter press.

Under Peter Stein's carefully crafted direction, Roger Allam and Jodhi May are outstanding. While the subject matter is both controversial and distasteful, Blackbird is a remarkable play that asks serious questions about society and morality.

A measure of its power was the silence of a first night audience who dared not shuffle or cough (with a single tortured exception who could not tear herself away from the action) at any point in a totally gripping two hours.

If you have the stomach, go and see it.

"Blackbird" runs until 13th May. Read Philip's interview with David Harrower.

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for Blackbird.