Blackbird

David Harrower
The Rose, Kingston upon Thames
(2008)

When David Harrower’s disturbing play transferred from Edinburgh to London in February 2006 it collected surprisingly mixed reviews, although there was a general welcome for its emotional rather than prurient portrayal of an obsessive sexual relationship between an underage girl and her middle-aged lover.

Among the enthusiasts, my colleague Philip Fisher used the descriptive phrase ‘a five star Edinburgh hit’ and Michael Billington found it ‘a searing theatrical experience’. But the not always reliable Toby Young roundly called it ‘a bad play’ while Alastair Macaulay summed it up as ‘a fake in both conception and execution.’

Back then it had been given a melodramatic staging by the legendary German auteur Peter Stein, playing for two hours without an interval and including an unscripted bloodstained finale in an underground car park, as well as Stein’s signature soundscape to add aural colour to the on-stage action.

Two years later David Grindley has revived the play for touring, a naturalistic production with a new cast and minus Stein’s theatrical flimflam: an intimate staging which sheds twenty minutes from the running time but looks a little lost across the wide-open spaces of the Rose Theatre in Kingston.

Robert Daws plays Ray as an ordinary bloke, a factory manager who fifteen years before shared a compulsive affair with the then 12 year-old Una. Now an adult, she arrives out of the blue to seek him out; in Dawn Steele’s performance a self-confident Scottish girl, fashionably but modestly dressed, not looking for vengeance but for closure.

Initially awkward with each other, their encounter in the rubbish-strewn staff room gradually becomes a touching anatomy of a passion shared rather than a challenging drama about child abuse. But the illegal relationship has permanently damaged both their lives — he scarred by a brutalising spell in gaol as a paedophile, she a family outcast with an unresolved future, who continues to grieve over the sudden loss of her lover.

Harrower’s best writing comes in a gentle middle passage as the two at last discover what happened on a chilly night in Tynemouth, their plans for escape shattered after they were wrenched apart by a misunderstanding, each believing they had been abandoned by the other.

I suspect the author will be happier with this lower key approach to his play. But its naturalism starkly exposes a late plot twist as a theatrical device when Una, ready to renew their affair, is suddenly forced to recognise that Ray could only love her as a juvenile figure, a sexy, knowing Lolita, not the grown up person she has now become.

(As a postscript I should add that (for this production at least) the Rose stage has been raised by about 30 inches, thus greatly improving the sightlines. But the Sennheiser sound system for the hard of hearing suffers from both low gain and microphones not optimally placed, which results in a muffled delivery of the spoken performances.)

At Kingston until 5th April and then touring: 15 – 19 April at Cambridge Arts Theatre; 22 – 26 April at Oxford Playhouse; 29 April – 3 May at Malvern Theatres; 5 – 10 May at the Theatre Royal Windsor; 19 – 24 May at the Theatre Royal Bath; 27 – 31 May at The Lowry, Salford Quays and 9-14 June at the Theatre Royal Glasgow

Allison Vale reviewed this production in Bath

John Thaxter