Hampstead Theatre Downstairs
From behind a shattered road sign that once read "Los Angeles" emerges a frightened, watchful woman onto a stretch of cracked tarmac. Later, we’ll realise this is the result of the 1994 earthquake, but first she will tell us about her life, reliving a sequence of memories.
It is a life that deliberately parallels US political action as she goes back to remember the 1970s, just before the Reagan years. Maxine grew up in Georgia, an almost feral child of poor whites. Her mother left (was she escaping the abuse of her husband or is the story more sinister?). Her dad was delighted when Reagan became President.
She’s eleven years old when her father teaches her to shoot and takes her out hunting rabbit. A year later, they have gone camping when he shows her the constellation of the Wolf in the sky. She doesn’t then relate to that but, out in the woods, where she likes being naked, she sees a vixen giving birth and she feels a connection. “I am wolf cub,” she says, “not this man’s daughter.”
Now there are times when she feels her fur and her claws, her eyes turning yelllow. She may live in fear but knows the realities: “it’s all murder and lies from when we first open our eyes. They move west and dad makes her burn her childhood things (“my princesses and ballerinas”) and at high school she gets a sexy boyfriend called Bobby with a dad from El Salvador. Bobby is already a dear. When he gets into trouble with his suppliers, he escapes trouble by heading off into the army, but they come looking—and that’s only the beginning.
There is a killing followed by an invitation to go to Nicaragua where, caught up with cocaine and the Contras, making crystal crack and money, in her early twenties, she finds a new love: “there's nothing sweeter on earth than when someone lets you hold their soul in your hand.” But back in LA, where she hears about Rodney King and the ensuing riots, he too has to split. He’s ensured that she is comfortably set up but things go suddenly wrong.
Maxine’s fictional experience parallels the pattern of American politics: Reagan’s support for the Contras, his deal with Iran and then subsequent War on Drugs. Ché Walker sees these actions and Reagan’s authoritarianism as paving the way to today’s US unrest and working class alienation. That isn’t explicit in the play, there’s no tub thumping—that’s in the programme—but this is powerful picture of the violence which is part of lives at the bottom of the ladder.
As Maxine, American actor Clare Latham gives a stunning performance. She has crossed the Atlantic to appear in this première and delivers Walker’s heightened text clearly while skilfully handling his imagery and for its whole ninety minutes holds non-stop attention.
Walker directs his own play helped by the careful timed atmospheric effects of John Leonard’s sound, Sheila Atim’s music and Bethany Gupwell's lighting. There is fear in the eyes of Young Maxine, fear that makes her vulpine, a fear that is part of the uncertain lives of so many.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton