Ticketmaster Summer in Stages


Phoebe Eclair-Powell
Damsel Productions
Soho Theatre Upstairs

Sarah Ridgeway as Sam Credit: The Other Richard and Colin Tonks

Sam is a single mother. Born and bred, and stuck, in south London. Stranded in a Peckham council flat, she’s a gift for a Daily Mail columnist: scrounging scum, stealing slut—she ticks every stereotype.

Sam’s story is one of rejection. Her father is dead; her mother deserted her. Rob, the father of her two boys, Mica and Jordan, has dumped her for a ‘fresh start’ with the aspiring, pregnant Carly. The agency boss sacks her from her cleaning job after complaints that she pilfers clients’ food and has ‘Attitude’. Her ‘Friend’ gives her the silent treatment for shagging her boyfriend.

Sam is fated to repeat past abandonments. Her kids cry, they won’t sleep; she leaves them home alone. “Have you left them? Sam?” reverberates like a leitmotif.

The State intervenes. Key workers, social workers, child protection officers are all quick to judge, blame and reprimand but support is in short supply. Lonely and languishing, a social outcast alongside increasingly gentrified neighbours, is it any wonder that Sam is vulnerable to the attentions of her neighbour, Tom, a middle-class postgraduate from the provinces?

She scoffs his Frosties; her kids watch Sky cartoons on his big telly; he gives her a cash-in-hand cleaning job and her first ‘good night out’ in ages. But, the soundtrack to their rendezvous, "In for the Kill", is portentous. The music which offers an escape route becomes her prison. The loud thump of his stereo in the flat above infiltrates her life; first it keeps the children awake, then it escalates to become an unstoppable soundtrack which takes control of her own story.

If they can come to an ‘arrangement’ then he won’t tell the Social that she’s a negligent mother and benefits cheat. Bullied and blackmailed, Sam loses hold on reality: the music consumes her.

Playwright Phoebe Eclair-Powell, winner of the 2015 Soho Young Writers’ Award and the Soho Theatre’s Writer-in-Residence, seeks to elevate Sam’s story to the level of Greek tragedy. The cast list describes Sam and Tom in generic terms, ‘mother’ and ‘monster’ respectively, and the tale is framed within the commentary of a tripartite Chorus, who fill in the back-story, guide us through the moral quagmire and take subsidiary roles.

Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Fury injects a note of sympathy, voicing Sam’s inarticulate indignation. Woman, played by Naana Agyei-Ampadu, is deadpan and down-to-earth, while Daniel Kendrick’s Man veers between ironic insouciance and bellicose condemnation. Kendrick is good too as the Policeman, called to investigate complaints that Sam’s mess and noise constitute a neighbourhood nuisance; his flak jacket endows him with credible supercilious censure and superficial concern.

The Chorus prowl the stage-space and sit in judgement, lounging on Sam’s sofa-bed, observing from the audience ranks, perching upon a central pedestal. The choreography—together with Anna Reid’s design and Natasha Chivers’ lighting—emphasises the claustrophobic constraints which Society imposes on Sam. At one point, she is literally thrown from pillar to post.

However, Eclair-Powell’s subtext is so blatant that we don’t really need this choric intervention. Moreover, while their interpretations are not a collective voice, but a polyphonic exchange presumably designed to make us think, they end up telling us what to think. All the more so as they are literally underscored by a soundtrack of Sam’s subconscious (music and sound by Nathan Klein). Song lyrics—"Get Free", "What’s a Girl To Do?"—seem a weak substitute for genuine access to Sam’s soul.

Things improve when that inner consciousness is revealed later and Sarah Ridgeway is the saving grace of this production. Her Sam is honest, funny and, initially, tentatively optimistic. But, increasingly vulnerable, she grasps futilely at fragile straws and cannot escape the stalking Tom or his mendacity. Ridgeway’s performance builds to an astonishing, tortured outburst of grief and rage.

Alex Austin effectively paces the role of Tom. At first, he seems a tabula rasa but it’s gradually made clear that his ‘blankness’ is an emotional vacancy that is eventually exposed as a chilling coldness, just a hair’s breadth from psychosis. Of course, this dangerous neurosis has to be a result of maternal neglect: he’s searching for the mothers of fiction to replace the real-life one who locked him in his room and was deliberately deaf to his screams.

Billed as a ‘modern Medea’, Fury is more Eastenders than Euripides. It lurches from mundanity to melodrama with little in-between. Eclair-Powell intends to challenge our preconceptions but the text can’t overcome its own clichés. The deserting Rob could never fill the Argonaut’s shoes.

Co-produced with Damsel Productions, Fury is directed by Hannah Hauer-King who draws strong performances from the cast. Ridgeway gives her all but she can’t overcome the fact that Sam is no Medea. I’ll avoid a spoiler but let’s just say that the mentally unstable Sam does not take vengeance by slaughtering Carly, or her own children, in cold blood (or so we presume—both the experiences and fate of the children are left ambiguous).

While Fury does raise questions about where and how responsibility is to be apportioned, it does not begin to address how Sam might be helped to help herself: how cycles might be broken. Medea, struggling to assert her identity and control her destiny in a patriarchal world, escaped to Athens to begin a new life. Sam may be introduced to us by Woman as “our hero, our ‘woman of the hour”, but she is no tragic, or feminist, heroine.

Arthur Miller rightly argued that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy as the exalted, but he added that the commonest of men “may take on [tragic] stature to the extent of his willingness to throw all he has into the contest, the battle to secure his rightful place in the world […] The thrust for freedom is the quality in tragedy which exalts”. Sam is neither defiant nor free; just defeated.

Reviewer: Claire Seymour