Sunday, April 13, 2014

'In This House: A Family Breakdown' at the Space Arts Centre, 12th April 2014

Going to see a play about a murder trial is a bit of a busman's holiday for me.  I've spent an inordinate amount of time in courtrooms up and down the country watching murderers balefully staring from the dock as the relatives of their victim tearfully give their testimony or tweed-wearing experts make lofty pronouncements on their state of mind.  A juicy murder trial with lots of interesting wrinkles is such a fascinating thing to get involved in that I'm surprised the viewing galleries are so often empty; you can go down to the Old Bailey and watch theatre that'll beat the socks off anything in the West End - and it's all free!

A murder is at the centre of Natalie Songer's In This House.  Lucy Mason, an unassuming teenage girl, has butchered her whole family over dinner. The press have dubbed her "the Angel of Death" and we come in at the beginning of her trial.  The prosecution and defence counsel are duelling comperes squaring off against each other; introducing the case with lascivious joy, imploring the audience to act as jury and to decide whether she's a cold-hearted, calculating killer or a poor waif driven inexorably towards carnage.

As counsel cross-examine the witnesses their testimony is dramatised, and so we gradually piece together the facts about what happened.  Throughout this process our sympathies slip and slide, one moment the evidence leans one way, the next another - the story shifting subtly depending on who's doing the telling.

This is a clever (and accurate) way of dramatising what goes on during a trial. Even the recent past has a frustrating tendency to become fuzzy and vague when placed under the legal microscope.  Time and space splinter into a thousand shards and the court's job is to reassemble them - their goal is an objective truth, but it's an impossible one to achieve.  In The House understands this, cleverly using Brechtian technique to highlight how the ways a courtroom works.

With this in mind the play sticks like glue to the principles of Epic theatre.  The cast remains on stage at all times, waiting patiently on chairs at either side of the stage for their cues. They change costumes in front of us, gossiping out of character before the action begins and waving placards during the action imploring us to applaud the appearance of a new witness. On more straightforward level the counsel frequently remind us that we're not watching a trial, that all this is made up, and that any legal nitpickers in the audience should button it and remember they're not in an actual court room.

Songer's play takes a warped delight in rubbing the audience's noses in the artifice, daring us to care about what we're watching. Of course, given how effective these scenes are played it's impossible for us not to get involved, the audience collectively bubbling with righteous indignation as we witness the horrors that Lucy's family visit upon her.  These people are so horrible they venture into Roald Dahl territory; a warped gaggle of grotesques with few likeable qualities.  That said, supremely hateful though they are, I can personally attest that they're far from unrealistic.

Particular credit has to go to Simon Kirk as the domineering, sexually screwed up father. He vibrates with rage, his lip cruelly curling as he dismembers his daughter's dignity. The character is a tightly wound bundle of red-faced, extroverted stupidity - if The Daily Mail were to be embodied in a human being you wouldn't be too far off the mark. Kirk makes his character so despicable so fast that the audience quickly comes to the silent consensus that maybe it's not so bad that this man dies a horrible death.  

The flipside of the coin is Grace Chilton as the angelic, innocent killer. With a simple white dress as her costume and a relaxed, open demeanour she comes across as girlish.  Just as we instantly hate the father, we immediately warm to Lucy.  She's the tortured, humiliated artist, an innocent victim of a cruel world who merely did what she had to do to survive, right? But underneath Lucy's pleasant, open demeanour Chilton layers something not quite right; it's slippery and difficult to pin down, but there's something definitely wrong here - and it's a sign of a nuanced performance that it takes us nearly the entire play to work out what it might be.

This dialogue between the past and present, with memories springing to life in front of us eventually feels less like an impartial reenactment and more like an idealised version of events.  Songer guides us intellectually and emotionally down a precise path she wants us to take; possessing the skill of making us feel exactly what she wants us to feel.  She shares this skill with expert legal counsel, whose success depends on being able to influence a jury one way or the other. In the final moments of the play we recognise just how much manipulation has been going on; echoing out from the centre. The fictional characters have been manipulated; the audience has been manipulated and we realise just how much the application of justice relies on this subtle manipulation.

As theatrical statement it's a success.  As a play it's not perfect though - there's the odd clunky line, the final act turns on a cliched psychological twist and, though the characters are at pains to underline that this is not a 'real' trial and court procedure does not apply, misused terminology and off phrasing rankles the legal nerd in me.  Despite that, as someone who's witnessed an awful lot of trials, In This House really does capture the mood and tone of a court room, as piece after piece of a grisly puzzle gradually slots into place.  It's a quietly great piece of theatre: engaging from start to finish, smartly put together and well worth a trip down to Docklands to check it out.

In This House: A Family Breakdown is at the Space Arts Centre: 8th – 19th April, 7:30pm £14/£10. Tickets here.

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