Ah Hampstead Theatre. How many times have I trundled up the Jubilee line to Swiss Cottage to visit you, revelling in a warm anticipatory glow, and how many times have I come away feeling all “huh?” and “hmm?” and “feh.” The answer is many. Rather too many times. So I was in a cautious mood when I went up to see Dennis Kelly’s latest play, Taking Care Of Baby.
The play begins with the words: "The following has been taken word for word from interviews and correspondence," scrolling across a bank of television screens. Using the techniques of verbatim theatre, Kelly tells the story of a young mother, Donna McAuliffe, who has been imprisoned, and subsequently released, for killing her two children. It's a depressingly familiar set-up, resembling any number of stories that have recently graced the headlines, as well as bringing to mind the National Theatre Of Scotland's production of Aalst which covered similar thematic ground.
Donna is released from prison after she is diagnosed by psychologist Dr Millard as suffering from Leeman-Keatley Syndrome, a condition that could cause an otherwise loving mother to harm her own children. This is despite questions being raised about the doctor's research methods, and indeed, whether the syndrome exists at all. Of course, after all this, Donna's life is no longer her own - her marriage inevitably crumbles and her mother Lynn, an ambitious local politician, finds her career initially jeopardised and then, perversely boosted, as her family's tragedy becomes tabloid fodder.
But Donna's innocence or otherwise is not really the issue here; Kelly is far more interested in the way her story gets pulled apart for the personal gain of others, how her truth, the reality of what happened to her children, ceases to be as important as the truths that other people impose on her. The play becomes increasingly cynical as it progresses, with Kelly even poking away at the very idea of verbatim theatre itself. He slowly chips away at our sense of what we're seeing, toying with audience expectations as the narrative becomes increasingly fragmented.
The actress playing Donna, Abigail Davies, does an amazing job: her speech is excruciatingly nervy and hesitant, with pain evident beneath the surface of every action, every utterance. Anthony Clark's direction is sharp and well-paced, knitting all the disparate strands together and this along with the memorable set, with its creepy baby-in-a-box centre-piece, adds to the overall impact of the piece.
But there's a nagging sense of missed targets as the play reaches its increasingly satirical conclusion. A sense that Kelly is trying to say too much about too many things - and, in doing so, he loses the focus that elicited so much uncomfortable laughter in the first half. This is an undoubtedly ambitious and intelligent piece of writing, but it's one that, in the end, proves just too slippery for its own good. Despite this, it’s still the most satisfying thing I’ve seen at Hampstead in a good long while.