Gifted

Peter Billingham
White Bear Theatre
(2010)

Production photo

At the centre of this play is a teenage girl called Fran. She's intelligent and bound, everyone else expects, for Oxbridge entry. She is alienated from her father and what appear to be his values and, though she seems to have buddies, is she really a loner, caught up in the wonder of words?

With a mother dependent on anti-depressants and a father working for some kind of weapons company and strongly supporting the government going to war, it is easy to see why a sensitive young idealist has relationship problems and her unease is increased when her best female friend declares a lesbian love for her.

There is no obvious motivation for her investing her caring and compassion in an aging Falklands War veteran, homeless and alcoholic, beyond the fact that he is vulnerable and there. Their strange relationship becomes the heart of this drama.

Matthew Ward is magnificent as the hard-drinking hobo, suspicious of the girl, scared what conclusions others would draw but building a bond with her and sharing his fears and his nightmares, haunted not by the surrendering Argies he shot but the spirits of lost comrades, until with her help and whisky he finds his quietus.

Is she an angel of charity or herself in need of psychiatric assistance? It is a question the play obviously asks but it does not argue a case for either, nor does the writing make it easy to entirely believe in the character despite the best efforts of Rebecca Whitbread's performance.

In scenes with her young black friends Chris (David Bonnick Jr.) and Mocha (Sapphire Joy) the dialogue seems entirely natural, at least as these young actors play it - and Joy is just that as a performer, one to look out for if she is always this good - but Whitbread is also given self-consciously worded soliloquies to deliver huddled awkwardly. Perhaps if they were written to be delivered directly to the audience, confiding rather than musing, in the same way that Shakespeare handles these things, they would communicate better instead of jarring. However in the scenes with her parents the language is just as unnatural and seems so deliberately. This may be a conscious device to emphasise the problems in the marriage and the home but to me it seemed theatrically awkward form.

I am all for heightened language in the theatre but you have to be able to think it as you play it, if you want us to believe in real characters not symbols. With homeless Norman his burst of song and purple passes are alcohol fuelled and come from the character. Elsewhere the language sometimes seems imposed rather than being theirs.

There is a fascinating core to this play that makes me hope that Peter Billingham may consider some more work on the script and, though you don't always have to understand precisely what an artist means by his symbols for them to have impact, I could do with some help in interpreting the rifle bullet that he uses as a token passed between his clever girl and her derelict. Although annoyingly not quite there yet for me it nevertheless gained an enthusiastic reception from its audience who may prove more perspicacious than I am.

At the White Bear Theatre until 16th May 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton