views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Tell Me You Love Me
Moors Theatre
4th August 2014


Publicity image for Tell Me You Love Me

Photography supplied by BitterSweet Theatre

Sometimes, when reading the synopsis for a play, a sense of mild genre horror settles in. This, at first glance, sounds uncomfortably like the blurb of a "misery lit" memoir (the fad which still sends a shudder into the heart of library workers and booksellers up and down the country). 1960s - 80s UK setting? Check. Alcoholism? Check. Parent-child relationship stretched to breaking point? Check, check, check. I'm pleased to report, though, that this play, in development from new company BitterSweet Theatre, manages to rise above the dirges of pure melancholy and delivers a thought-provoking, if often bleak, piece of fiction.

The narrative opens in 1988 (signalled via a blackboard - appropriately low-tech for the time period) with a now adult Sam (Emma Wingrove) meeting a social services representative (Grania Dean). Sam produces a birth certificate and the lady with the clipboard confirms that yes, it's definitely that of her older sister, who is apparently keen to meet her. The exposition in this first scene feels a little clunky in places but does its job, allowing us to digest the shock of the sisters' mum's rape and letting Sam begin her reverie - and with it, the main story.

It's 1969 and a lairy Kath (Teresa Husher) dances her way in, clad in odd shoes. From beneath the table a young Sam appears, clutching her dolly, to choose the white PVC boots for Kath's performance that night in the pub below their home. This is suggested with minimal props - a table covered in a lace tablecloth, a cheap blanket made from knitted acrylic squares, a single desk/record player unit at the side.

A series of vignettes straddling varying moods suggest the turmoil of Sam and Kath's life, sketching in the frame on which the drama hangs. The scenes are often distressing to watch, particularly when Kath lashes out at her daughter verbally and sometimes physically. Against a backdrop of neglect and abuse, the rare moments of levity are welcome relief, particularly when Kath takes Sam outside to sit in a thunderstorm (honestly, it's sweeter than it sounds).

Publicity image for Tell Me You Love Me

Photography supplied by BitterSweet Theatre

Time marches on and Sam grows up. Despite the good intentions of neighbours, social workers and Sam's school (all Dean), no real solutions are offered - in the most heartrending image of Act I, Sam curls up alone on a chair, on her birthday, weeping to Odetta's version of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.

Hope is offered and then snatched cruelly away for both Sam and Kath. During one argument Kath snarls "You're just like me!" and despite her daughter's vociferous response, the parallels do run deep. Both are stubborn, mouthy, damaged people and Sam seems at one point to be making some of her mother's mistakes. The ringing difference, however, is that Sam is able to escape by the end of the play, with the rest of her life ahead.

Lighting is used to creative effect in the tiny space, signalling scene transitions and creating atmosphere - especially well done for the recurrent rainstorms. The decision to spread the dramatic space offstage and to the bar levies the claustrophobic nature of the domestic space, but might be a little awkward for those in the first two rows.

The company works hard, changing costumes onstage, rejigging the set and wringing each ounce of emotion from the material. Husher oscillates between a stumbling, screaming drunk to a more caring, loving, sober version of Kath. The glimpses of her kinder self underscore the tragedy of her inevitable decline in Act 2. Meanwhile, Dean nimbly takes on the background characters, earning particular laughs for her Welfare Officer nun (with ubiquitous Irish accent). At times she stumbles a little with some lines, but the piece is still in development. And Wingrove carries the burden of the piece, occasionally stepping outside to narrate but never losing the flow of the emotion. Her Sam is flawed, damaged, but filled with fierce determination. She conveys Sam's pain and sadness fluidly, at times static, at others whirling about the stage.

In a play about words unsaid, music often fills the gaps. Juxtaposing Happiness against a crying child, for example, adds an extra cruelty to the scene, even if it's a bit heavy-handed. But the barriers that both Sam and Kath are constantly putting up are betrayed by a combination of music cues and wounded looks, and a lot of crying.

Fabric almost becomes an extra character at times - whether offering comfort (Sam's ragdoll), posing a source of conflict (the first Holy Communion outfit), to clothing offering a barometer of Kath's mental health; from her initial stage outfit, to her scruffy quilted houserobe, to her 'normal mum' clothing. In contrast we see authority in the suited social workers, robed nuns, and even adult, professional Sam, whose accent has morphed from her London vernacular to a more RP tone. It's a nice little touch that shows how far Sam has come, superficially at any rate.

The second act sees the power dynamic switch, and finally allows us to see a peeling away of the layers of damage inflicted upon Kath, leading to her current state. The play's real tragedy hangs between the two women - their motivations almost palpable. Thee audience loathes Kath's behaviour towards her daughter while simultaneously pitying her; in the second act the most frustrating moment comes with Sam's refusal to have her mother sectioned, despite seeing the reason for her reluctance.

In a play filled with so much gritty, misery-filled reality, the moments of dark humour are much-needed release valves. The interval allows a brief respite but with an overlong first act that could easily be cut (cycles of abuse-authority figure-crying and wailing) the second then feels too short. Perhaps the pacing will even out as it progresses, and hopefully the overrun of 40 minutes, if my calculations are correct, will drop too. Still, despite the uneven balance timing-wise, this dark and painful piece is a worthwhile watch.

Tell Me You Love Me opened on 4th August and runs until 6th August 2014 at Moors Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Hornsey (National Rail)

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