The woman at the centre of this play seems to have everything: a glamorous modern home, a fashionable architect husband and a career in the glossy media, but one thing is lacking: a child. They have tried and they've tried - and tests show there is nothing wrong with her, but then they decided to adopt and at last it seems that a baby may be up for adoption and there is a chance that it could be theirs. Her husband manages to tear her away from her mobile and her laptop to tell her: a baby, three weeks, two days old.
The birth mother Rose (she and the couple's housekeeper Katya are the only characters to be given names) is a young junkie prostitute. The baby is still in detox. The mother is a category three offender but wants to keep her baby - if she manages to sort herself out they may not get the baby.
If you think that sounds like the beginning of a rather cliché tug-of-love plot between loaded professional with few mothering skills and irresponsible street-woman who has natural rapport with her child your aren't far wrong but this play takes on very much more than that. It highlights that great gap between children's needs and what they get; it looks at the harm parents do to their kids and what sacrifices parents will make for them, at sibling jealousies and the strains of high-powered marriages; and it shows us a woman who is beginning to have a much deeper understanding of herself and of the needs of others. That too is not especially innovatory or different but what makes this play special - and makes it work - is the reflection on these things presented through a character who is not really there.
As the Woman, the prospective adopting mother, reacts with infantile excitement to the news that a baby may become available, wanting to reorganise house and life as though it is already hers, a new acquisition to play with, a child appears with whom she interacts: a child of her imagination who sometimes seems to be her hopes and vision for this child as she grows, sometimes a memory of her own a childhood.
This little girl is there throughout the play, though not always seen, sometimes hiding behind a doll's house that represents the idea of home - a home that may have is deficiencies just as the doll's house has no stairs, sometimes poetically drifting through a woodland memory of childhood, sometimes playing out the aggression of an exasperated mother. She is beautifully played by Sophie Stone, whether flitting and dancing both live and as a ghost-like video image on the wall of sliding glass (by which designer Angela Simpson suggests a minimalist architectural modernism) or folding into inertia and out of sight.
Writers directing their own plays can sometimes prove disastrous but here the single vision of dramatist/director Polly Teale is beautifully realised, with lighting, video, sound, music and choreography from the members of her team that fit seamlessly together.
There is a confrontational, stunningly real Rose from Lorraine Stanley; Marion Bailey as the Woman's mother gives her a mixture of guilt and defensive outrage and Clare Lawrence Moody as the Woman's sister splendidly begins to loose her temper with her own children while still showing her concern for them - and she also engages our sympathies as housekeeper Katya.
It is largely up to Alistair Petrie as the firmly practical, rather calculating husband to show the stresses of his marriage. Katy Stephens' Woman is wrapped up in her own needs and self-discoveries. While the other characters are written very naturalistically her role is more stylized, giving her not so much heightened speech as heightened sensitivity and she handles this with skill as she presents the emotional journey of a woman gaining a new sense of others.
In synopsis this play might sound like an episode from a television soap or a Hollywood script-factory but it is not. I found it a very satisfying evening in the theatre.
At Hampstead Theatre until 25th October
Reviewer: Howard Loxton