A Window @ Oval House, London | Theatre Review

awindow

A Window (a triptych) playing at the Oval House until 14 November, is the latest theatrical piece by controversial playwright, Edward Bond. As with several others of Bond’s, it is in association with the Big Brum Theatre company which works extensively with young people, taking their plays on tour around the UK’s schools, seeking to engage the youth.

A Window tells the traumatic story of a nameless couple and their son. Seventeen odd years before he’s born, his mother (played by Liz Brown) reads in a newspaper the gruesome tale of a woman who deliberately blinds her son so that he might be more dependent on her. Brown’s character is so distressed that her already fragile emotional state plunges to a new low. Having recently learned that she is pregnant the story resonates with her all the more. She seeks isolation from all around her, including her unsympathetic boyfriend played by Richard Holmes. He insists that she terminates the pregnancy and when she refuses he walks out.

Fast forward nearly twenty years; mother has developed a nasty drug habit and her son (Danny O’Grady) serves as the reluctant supplier, putting himself at risk as he robs to get the money for her highs. On one particular occasion the son is stabbed trying to fetch his mum’s latest fix and both are forced to confront their role in sustaining her self-destructive lifestyle. After a heated verbal exchange the son exhausted, falls asleep on their living room sofa. As he slumbers his mother wrestles with finding a way to break the vicious cycle. In her despair she decides death is the only option.

In the third part of the triptych, the son is trying to explain the impact of his mother’s demise to a cold and disengaged social worker, who the young man is soon to find out, has more of a vested interest in the matter than he could have imagined.

Richard Holmes’ performance as the loathsome, errant father starts off in overload before settling into being more convincingly callous beyond redemption. Danny O’Grady completely inhabits his role as the son (a shell-shocked expression remained on his face even as he took a bow), gathering momentum as the play unfolds. This is exemplified in the most subtly potent and well executed scene in the play. Danny’s character is woken up by an infectious ditty his mother left playing on her IPod before she commits suicide. He starts to clean up after her, dancing around the room nonchalantly before bursting into tears at the slow realisation of what has occurred. The juxtaposition of the brutal and the banal leaves a striking impression on the audience and O’Grady rises the challenge of the scene expertly.

Liz Brown nonetheless, is A Window’s star player, giving a consistently raw and emotive performance. She casts a spectre over the piece, as the character is meant to, even when she’s not on stage.

Edward Bond
Edward Bond playwright

A Window is a relentlessly intense and disturbing piece – there’s hardly any let-up or light relief for all of its relatively brief 80 minutes. A post show discussion with Bond revealed how involved he gets in his pieces. I wonder how much room director Chris Cooper had to bring his own interpretation to the play and how much of the suffocating feel of the whole affair could be accredited to him or Bond. The playwright said he wanted to explore the subject of identity, in particular how young people cope with this big ontological puzzle.

It’s interesting that he chose the claustrophobic relationship between a drug addict mother and supplier son as oppose to the well-worn road of peer pressure from friends, to achieve this end. A Window plays with the unnerving idea that children carry the sins of their forebears, not least when they have been an unwitting accomplice to the transgression, becoming defined by their parents’ mistakes as it were.

Bond is not interested in escapism through the arts, seeing it as having a destructive, irresponsible effect. In the tradition of good, serious theatre he seeks to challenge the audience to be more aware of the world around them. More specifically Bond says through his work with Big Brum, he wishes to empower young people to articulate the troubles they experience in a contemporary society; one that he believes does not have enough genuine interest in addressing their problems. As admirable as Bond’s intentions are I am not sure if A Window is the most effective tool to do this.

Make no mistake, the language of the play is in no way patronising; the dialogue remains current and natural throughout. No embarrassing attempts are made to be uber-trendy and du jour. However more than anything, it is a rather disconcerting piece and in spite of the writer’s objectives it isn’t quite sure who its target audience should be – ironic for a play concerned with identity issues. It’s fine as a discourse about the often taut relations between parent and offspring but even then the circumstance is quite extreme. No doubt it is the reality of some people but it is presumptuous to assume every troubled youth comes from an underprivileged background.

At the post-show discussion, one young man, presumably the kind of individual Bond hopes to reach struggled to find relevance in A Window to his day to day. Bond reacted defensively to his question about the research that went into the play, saying that living life is all the research he needed. I found this response slightly pompous and thought that perhaps Bond should have been taking note of the young man’s reservations instead.

Despite the play being set in the familiar surroundings of a family living room there remains a detached, nigh-abstract quality to the piece. I doubt Bond’s intention was for any message conveyed to be so indirect but that is the result. Speaking to Liz Brown after the performance she explained that when it is performed in schools the scenes are framed and given some kind of context that make it more accessible to the students. In this regards I can see how it would work but as a stand-alone piece outside of the four walls of academic institutions it hovers in a limbo state, burdened by its purpose but not fully delivering.

A Window is on at the Oval House until November 24th, 2009. Tickets £12 from Ticketweb.

Reviewed by Tola Ositelu

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