Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Belongings

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm
Hampstead Downstairs
Trafalgar Studios 2
(2011)

Belongings production photo

Part of being able to be properly at home, to belong, is to be able to have boundaries. And when a play begins with a female soldier coming home to be greeted by a naked man and when that play's very set is in part a desert barracks, in part a very English kitchen, you suspect that something's gone awry.

Belongings centres around Deb, who's caught in two timelines: one where she's stationed in the Middle East as part of the British army and one that follows her coming home after being deployed for two years. As we learn why she left the army early and what exactly has happened to the family home, Deb flits between trading laddish banter with her military bunkmate Sarko on one side of the stage to sharing a beer with her dad and her old-friend turned stepmom Jo on the other.

This may seem convoluted but it's intuitively presented and the transitions between the two settings are fluid and easy. Belongings takes on this staging exceptionally well: the play fills out its theatrical space; there's dust everywhere for a start and it is stunningly well directed. This is not just in terms in the (excellent) acting, but in that certain scenes, while actually quite complex, come across easily.

As an example, towards the end of the play Deb is caught in a dialogue with the three other characters, flitting in and out of conversation with each. This is the best moment of the play: not only is none of the emotional intensity of this climactic moment lost, but the accumulation feels necessary and natural. Here Joanna Horton as Deb is astonishing, able to in a few lines change tone, situation and emotional intensity.

The core of the play's subject matter is what could be dismissively called 'Women's Issues': pornography, gender roles, women in the military, lesbianism, domestic abuse. Even the hijab gets fitted in. But this socio-political subtext, even if textbook, doesn't feel forced or unnatural during the night and in fact only really becomes evident afterwards.

Partly this is because the play's central character and locus, Deb, is flexibly mysterious and intriguing in herself; partly because Morgan Lloyd Malcolm's writing is strong enough to ground all of the action and humanise what's on stage, while adding in a little humour.

This said, Belongings does bite off more issues than it can properly chew so while sexism is best understood as a whole, there's an underdeveloped aftertaste, most strongly felt with the two male characters that are well drawn but underdeveloped.

The strangest part of the night however, is its ending. Those who are still to see the play should skip this paragraph. The play ends with one of the most puzzlingly, and potentially subversive, uses of rape. After Deb is raped by her military bunkmate she takes a cold shower. If this moment is read in the context of the rest of the play then it becomes an almost cleansing moment: she had said when she had returned home that "love is like cold water on hot skin" and the play ends with her commenting that it was like there had been dust on her skin, meaning she could not breathe; implicitly dust that would be washed off by water.

Where this becomes really troubling is the conflict between the overt momentum of the play and its undertones. The play's direction seems to be that of Deb breaking down followed by a liberating catharsis and her moving on from her sullied ties to real belonging. But this cathartic moment is linked to her rape and she leaves to try to find a lost and potentially abusive mother: more an act of utter desperation than of seizing a bright new day. The resolute Deb on stage in the final scene becomes broken by social structures when considered in more detail. This may be why the actual rape scene itself comes off as a bit of a false note: there's a conflict between how the play has been written and how it has been directed from this point on.

Belongings is powerful, compelling and immersive piece of theatre, entirely at ease with its ambitious staging. Extremely well paced and politically attuned it falls short by lacking focus towards the end but is otherwise an unmissable performance.

"Belongings" is playing at Trafalgar Studios 2 until 9th July

Reviewer: Tobias Chapple