The Sewing Group at the Royal Court Theatre
It’s hard to know how much to say about E V Crowe’s The Sewing Group. One of the most delightful parts of the play is the gradual way it shifts its tone, travelling from point A to a very different point B in (initially at least) barely detectable increments.
The first section feels like a series of New Yorker cartoons; these flashes of bone-dry wit that have no real narrative to speak of. Yet as the play progresses, and the story’s outline begins to firm up, other antecedents are revealed. The most relevant comparison, however, is not theatrical (though there are hints of Caryl Churchill, specifically the mind-bending Blue Heart). No, the most apt point of reference is the work of short-story maestro George Saunders. Like the US author, Crowe creates a bizarre, backwards-looking little world, all in service of exploring the personal imprints left behind by the omnipresence of technology. Crowe has the same playfulness as Saunders (The Sewing Group consistently, ahem, has the audience in stitches) and the same winking eye married, crucially, to the same sense of poignancy.
The way the play is constructed means there is a lot of pressure on the central performance from Fiona Glascott. As Maggie, the actress is asked to simultaneously revel in the domestic absurdity of pre-industrial existence, superimpose modern office politics on top of that lifestyle, and hint at the kind of stress or mental breakdown that may have led her character to where she is at the start of the narrative. Glascott excels in the role, her sewing group despot routine the source of much of the story’s ample humour. The rest of the ensemble are just as great, especially John Mackay who increasingly resembles an insipid team leader trying to keep an interminable activity day on track.
The questions the technology-free play asks about the cost of our dependence on modern machinery aren’t necessarily new – the entire concept of the Black Mirror series is based on similar foundations, while there are echoes of its feminist concerns in Ella Hickson’s Oil, currently on at the Almeida. Yet there is a freshness to the way Crowe packages her narrative: liberally aided by the tableau-like direction of Stewart Laing and the period-pluckings of Christopher Shutt’s musical interstitials, it fully earns its position next to its thematic peers.
The Sewing Group is at the Royal Court Theatre from 16th November until 23rd December 2016, for further information or to book a visit here.
Watch the trailer for The Sewing Group here: