Sunday, July 10, 2016

'Broad Shadow' at the National Theatre, 7th July 2016

Broad Shadow is a straightforwardly effective play that's ripe with complexity. I see an awful lot of theatre each week and lots of it is pretty goddamn terrible, but this brief n' breezy thirty minute one act piece knocks most of the rest into a cocked hat. 

And it's written by a 16 year old.

New Views is the National Theatre's annual playwriting competition for 15-19 year olds. Broad Shadow is the winner, having triumphed over more than 300 entries from over sixty-six schools across the UK. I cringe when I remember my teenage scribblings, so I have no envy for the panel of judges tasked with sorting through this stuff. I don't want to assume too much, but there must be an awful lot of embarrassingly overwrought bilge to grind through.

But I bet it's all worth it when you come across a playwright like Molly O'Gorman. She's a student of Brighton College and, drawing from her experiences of growing up in Ireland, gives us an incisive perspective into the shifting relationship between mother and daughter.

Róisín (Roxanna Nic Liam) ekes out a living working at Lidl in a small Irish town. Life isn't sunshine and roses, but neither is it completely miserable. Her prospects takes a turn for the better when she's asked if she'd assist with a new supermarket in distant Belfast. It's easy to sympathise with Bowie-fan Róisín's attraction to big city lights and the prospect of a fresh star, especially when you see what's going on at home.

Surrounded by dirty coffee cups and swaddled in a stained dressing gown, her Mum (Eileen Walsh) has surrendered. With her husband recently dead, Róisín is s the sole bread-winner and Mum has resigned herself  to a sofa-based fate of crap TV and moody resentfulness. Essentially the relationship between mother and daughter has been inverted - the child responsible and forward thinking, the mother prone to emotionally manipulative outbursts. But with Róisín making escape plans, the situation reaches boiling point.

Though there's much to praise here, most obvious is the care and subtlety with which the central relationship is written. Róisín and her mum feel like they've been bickering forever - and each knows precisely how to needle the other. Róisín is more obviously sympathetic, gritting her teeth and feigning cheeriness for as long as it takes to escape. The mum is somewhat less attractive as a character, but her morose depression is keenly and emotively conveyed. With a dead husband, daughter preparing to flee and little future prospects, why not just waste away?

This whiff of morbidity is accentuated by the play taking place on gigantic weathered stone slabs, Ikea furniture perched awkwardly on top. It creates a vast emptiness, emphasising the distance between the two, as well as evoking a loose graveyard vibe. Though never  explicitly communicated, O'Gorman's writing hints at the mother's suicidal thoughts, the living room becoming a vast grave-in-waiting. The mother seems willing to take the plunge and she'll to drag Róisín down with her. We find ourselves willing her to escape this black hole - to get the hell out of dodge.

On top of that, you've got two performances that continually feed off one another, one always reacting to the other. Nic Liam's Róisín believably bristles with frustration; angry, slightly guilty and sad, but putting an optimistic shine on things whenever she can. Her best moment comes when, for once alone, she rocks out to Oh You Pretty Things. It's a moment of escapist joy that hopefully echoes her future in Belfast. Meanwhile Walsh plays the Mum like Eeyore having a particularly shitty day. She's all Edna Krabappelish "Ha!"s and snide, spiky little jabs at Róisín, her character reeking of unattractively adolescent self-pity. She's easy to despise, yet Walsh layers in so much vulnerability that she ends up pathetically heartbreaking, rather than just plain pathetic.

I'd have praised Broad Shadow no matter who it was written by, but O'Gorman deserves serious kudos for turning out something this good at 16. It's well-staged and performs, but the obvious highlight is the confident and disciplined treatment of familial conflict and a painfully perceptive understanding of the ways in which relationships gradually shift over time. Mark my words, Molly O'Gorman is a name you're going to hear more of.


(For the sake of full disclosure, I know Roxanna Nic Liam socially)

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