[BLANK] at Donmar Warehouse
[BLANK] is an act of compassionate curation. From the 100 individual scenes Alice Birch has written about women and the criminal justice system for Clean Break’s 40th anniversary, 22 have been staged by director Maria Aberg. It is this process of selection, and the text’s structural malleability, that both lends the evening its cumulative power and makes it frustratingly uneven.
Narrative threads blink in and out, sometimes clear, sometimes only suggested. We open on a series of vulnerable women, the precariousness of their lives – drug use, abusive partners, overwhelming depression – seemingly pointing them in one direction. When the play does arrive in prison, it’s claustrophobic, the previous emptiness of Rosie Elnile’s cold, exposed spaces suddenly too full. Multiple scenes perch at the gulf between mothers and daughters, the extended offering of support and comfort either not enough or arriving too late. Much of the production has the elliptical sadness of a Caryl Churchill play, unspoken howls of pain struggling to breach the surface.
It is a bit jarring, then, that the centrepiece scene is so different. Squarely aimed at those in attendance, a middle-class group of women meet for one of their regular dinner parties: labneh and flatbreads, Deliveroo-ed wine, and a cheeky bit of coke. Kate’s brought her new partner Shona, with strict instructions for her friends not to embarrass her.
It’s witty and cutting, as Shona gradually offers a running commentary on all the kinds of banal, uninterrogated opinions and platitudes, the hypocrisies and liberal tears the table offers up. About the “revolutionary” impact of MeToo, the patronising, cosy chats with their drug dealer, the lazy assumptions made regarding repeated patterns of childhood abuse. And then, once the point has been thoroughly made, Birch goes a step further, swapping the subtle building of tension for a big, blunt blow out that merely covers the same ground.
Even with the botched ending, this is a great piece of writing. It is also, maybe, in the wrong place. That a pair of the toughest scenes follow the dinner party doesn’t quite sit right. They feel like an odd addendum to an already spent crescendo; an abrupt shift back to the quieter tone of the first half that is over before the audience can fully re-settle. However strong this version of [BLANK] is – and there is so much here to recommend, not least the uniformly excellent performances – it can’t help but leave the question hanging of what a different compilation would look like.
Photo: Helen Maybanks
[BLANK] is at Donmar Warehouse from 11th October until 30th November 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.