Thursday, October 29, 2009

If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet at the Bush

Nick Payne’s promising play journeys into the dark terrain of adolescent pain and desire.

Anna is fifteen, overweight for her age, and has the added handicap of having a teacher for a mother. This makes her a target for bullies and, at the start of the play, she is about to be suspended for retaliating against her tormentors (with a head butt). Her parents know there’s something wrong; they sense she’s unhappy, but neither really sees, neither really understands.

Her father is an academic and environmental campaigner consumed by research for his current project, a polemical book on climate change. He grasps the bigger global picture and despairs over the damage being done to planet but is blind to the growing divide between him and his wife and to Anna’s increasing unhappiness and confusion. Her mother, though kind and concerned, is equally unable to get through to Anna.

The head butt results in Anna being suspended from school just at the same time as her father’s younger brother, her uncle Terry, rolls up to their door with a rucksack on his back and a vague, poorly thought through plan of getting things together with his ex-girlfriend. He’s good hearted geezer type, the antithesis of Anna’s father, with a runaway mouth that’s not overly well-connected with his brain. As played by Rafe Spall with sublime comic timing, a string of endearingly inappropriate comments come clumsily tumbling from Terry’s mouth (his drunken monologue on the joys of taking a ‘fat bird’ to bed is a stand out example).

Terry suggests that he could help out the family by spending time with Anna during her suspension and through this simple act her life is lifted, bit by bit. Immature and inept as he is, he listens to her, he pays attention to her, and he talks relatively openly about sex. He even throws her a condom when she confesses to him that she’s been asked out on a date. He treats her like a whole, grown person, in a way her parents don’t and can’t.

Ailish O’Connor is astonishingly good as Anna; she captures the confusion of adolescence, the sense of being tugged in every direction, ricocheting between longing, embarrassment, anger and acute desperation. She’s alternately sullen and gleeful, occasionally hiding her face like a shy a child. Spall fills the small space of the Bush Theatre as Terry – it’s a big but balanced performance; while Pandora Colin and Michael Begley provide solid support as Anna’s parents, though the latter’s performance initially feels too mannered, like a caricature in comparison to the rest.

Lucy Osborne’s glorious set has the whole interior of the Bush's auditorium painted sky blue and streaked with cloud, signifying both the sky Anna’s father will no longer fly in as frets over his carbon footprint and the blue of the future, the things waiting in the distance for Anna once school and all its attendant horrors have faded and fallen away.

Payne’s play is funny and touching and quite brutal in places. He’s good at writing scenes of awkwardness and at conveying unsaid things as well as said things - the words held back, trapped on the tongue - and while he doesn’t quite succeed in fusing the environmental thread (which provides a kind of framing device) to the main body of the play, he’s spot on in his writing of the complex knot of gulfs and bonds that develop between parents and children.

Reviewed for musicOMH


SueG said...

I read your blog about Poetry and Plays in The Guardian and just wrote a response to it at my blog, if you'd like to see it:

I'm a poet and playwright with a "poetry play" produced and published that might interest you. In any event, I'm glad to have now discovered you and your blog. Thanks.

Sorry to post this comment here, but I've been out of the country and the Guardian post now seems closed for comments.

PS I'm also Artistic Director of CurvingRoad (, a charity that finds and produces new playwrights both in the fringe and West End. You might be interested in that, too.

SueG said...

Me again...just to say I'd love for you to take a look at my poetry play, if you're interested, and I'd be happy to send you a copy if you want to give me an address to send it to. If you want, you can reach me at And thanks again for responding to my response!