Monday, 11 April 2011

The Knot of the Heart ****

Addiction is an issue that needs to be highlighted. There are few people that would argue with the claim and David Eldridge’s new script for Lisa Dillon and the Almeida gives a breath of life to the twisted agony of addiction. Eldridge does so, much to his credit, without any sanctimonious speeches about the nature of addiction or the struggles of addicts, without preaching or obvious lecturing. The play focuses on the story of Lucy, the events that contribute to her battle with addiction, from her eyes as it is actually happening and not in retrospect. This is a powerful method and pays dividends.
Having not been to the Almeida before I must say now that I was delighted with the arrangements there. The theatre is a magnificent little venue and the stage was just as innovative. A revolving circular stage was decorated with translucent walls that were able to diversity to the set, allowing the stagehands to set up a number of different scenes at once and move from one to the other remarkably quickly. The effect worked marvelously well; occasionally we’d be encouraged to look through the walls and most of the time we’d be readily accepting them as solid walls. It allowed the stage to be intimate while still hinting at a larger world outside.
The family at the center of the story is possibly the most self-destructive family I have ever seen on stage (or off). The mother, Barbara, is ceaselessly stifling, smothering Lisa Dillon’s Lucy in cotton wool far beyond the barriers of comfort. She is usually seen either in a panic or with a glass of wine in her hand and her addiction to alcohol is clearly played by the actors as a major contributory factor to the larger addiction problems the family goes through, despite the fact it isn’t brought to the fore in the script until close to the end. Margot Leicester plays Barbara very well indeed. By the end I was finding it near impossible to separate her from her character, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I hadn’t found her character so utterly repellant. Her character work provides a wealth of information about the childhood of her troubled daughters.
The daughters are both played very well by very good actresses. Eldridge has openly said that he wrote the part of Lucy for Lisa Dillon. Her fit for the role was as natural as to be expected from such a dynamic. She takes the role by the scruff of the neck and wrestles it from drug-addled desperation to timid fear and back again through a great deal of traumatic in-betweens. The journey she thrashes out on stage is powerful and painful to watch as a driven woman tries to fight against her debilitation despite the best efforts of her family. Abigail Cruttenden’s part in that family is important and trying. Her character exists in the most part by way of relation to her sister but near the end she is brought into her own and the whole world shifts. Cruttenden handles this power well throughout, playing her powerful and driven character with an insecurity that raises the tension in any scene she is involved in. Her relationship as Dillon’s sister is one that is easy to believe and their chemistry is a valuable asset to the show, Margot Leicester completing what is a believable if hopefully not too common family.

Sophie Stanton provided a calming influence, slowing down the overly quick scenes when she was present and giving an atmosphere of security and peace as well as a bit of comic relief, which she incorporated very well. Kieran Bow also deserves a great deal of credit for his contribution. Switching between a total of SIX characters in one show and being able to characterise them all differently and fully is not easy but he achieves it well. I was confused at one point as I couldn’t work out if it was the same person playing a couple of the roles. I was sure that it was but he didn’t seem the same. Very well done indeed. I particularly liked the dynamic between his psychiatrist and Lucy and his male nurse and Lucy. They were light-hearted and fun where his earlier drug-involved characters had been aggressive and abrasive; it’s a very good showcase of his ability.

Despite all the positives of the show there was something that wasn’t quite there and I think it’s something that was missing in the script. At no point throughout did I feel invested in the characters to the point of caring deeply about them. Lucy’s fall from grace is well documented but the lack of experience of her grace to begin with damages our ability to sympathise with her fall. The story itself whistles along rapidly from the beginning to the end, managing to cover three years. This, I think, is too quick. We follow the story, and it is a very good story, but it all goes far too quick for us to be able to invest genuinely in the characters. This is perhaps a result of the story needing such a long time to play out. The story was prioritised over the characters and though I’m not saying it was a bad thing to choose, it does mean that the characters are playing second fiddle to the story.
Put together the Almeida space itself with a show such as this and there can’t be too many better reasons to go to the theatre in London at the moment.

Written by David Eldridge; Directed by Michael Attenborough; At the Almeida Theatre; Starring Lisa Dillon, Abigail Cruttenden, Margot Leicester, Kieran Bew, Sophie Stanton; Runs from 10 March 11- 30 April 11.

John Ord (09/04/2011)

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