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Review: ANATOMY OF A SUICIDE, Royal Court

"My mother says you're tragedy personified," reports a precocious child to Carol, who recently attempted suicide. It's typical of Alice Birch's harrowing new play, which wrings blistering humour as well as despair from its accomplished portrait of women in pain and their disconnect from those around them.

Three generations of a family, three suffering women, two hours straight through. Katie Mitchell's precise production is merciless, and the brilliant form of Birch's work - grandmother, mother and daughter shown simultaneously in the 1970s, 1990s and 2030s, with alternating and overlapping scenes - means this is an inexorable tragedy. We know the fate of two of them, and the intergenerational ripples of those actions.

The play's form also invites debate on whether what Birch terms "inherited suicide" is a nature or nurture affair: a shared genetic predisposition, or a trauma leading to that sufferer deliberately mirroring its source. Are the echoes throughout - from linguistic tics like "I'm sorry" and "It was an accident" to lying on the floor in surrender or obsessive walking - warning signs that can signal the need for intervention?

The exact mental state of these women is left open to interpretation, as is the way others respond to it - other than the obvious failings of the medical profession, including a horrific glimpse of electroconvulsive therapy. That opacity is effective but a tad limiting, particularly in the case of Bonnie, whose development is constricted by both the tight thematic focus and the need to accommodate a trio of stories.

These mainly unfold in one location: the house that Carol loves, that daughter Anna later moves into, and that granddaughter Bonnie haunts, all too aware of what has taken places within its walls. Alex Eales's grey, ghostly space, low lit by James Farncombe, is both physical and psychological - the murky pit in which they are trapped.

It's necessarily bleak, but frequently punctuated by witty and refreshingly female-centric writing. The glamorous, enigmatic Carol endures clumsy male advances and accusations of selfishness for not shelving her problems once she becomes a mother; surely a child should give her something to live for?

That misunderstanding of depression is given a gendered slant by Birch's exploration of the ways in which women are expected to feign happiness and to subsume their own lives into those of their husbands and children. In a standout scene at a wedding, Carol meets someone she went to school with who idolised this mysterious beauty, but the girl - embracing the era's relative freedoms by jetting around the world as an air hostess - is disappointed to find that Carol is now "just" a wife and mother.

Anna - who fell into drug addiction after Carol's death - enters both roles with more caution, and with more understanding from husband Jamie. But there's still a belief that her actions are a choice: that if she knows how much he loves her, or how much her child needs her, that ought to be enough to influence her "decision".

Bonnie, unsurprisingly, is almost paralysed when faced with the possibility of a relationship or having a child, but even in a future era, her views on motherhood are treated as abnormal; the default for women to return to these roles, whether or not it's something they need, want or can handle, is a strong runner throughout Birch's piece.

The three central performances are remarkable. Hattie Morahan is luminous as Carol, sleek and silent as she draws on a cigarette, but her churning inner life all too apparent. Adelle Leonce similarly conveys volumes as the sphinx-like Bonnie, but unlike Carol, her silence is an evident battle, as is her fear of what might happen if she surrenders control.

In contrast, Kate O'Flynn's words tumble forth as Anna, whether drunkenly fending off concerns, enduring an adorably awkward date with Gershwyn Eustache Jnr's kindly Jamie, or the unstoppable torrent of a post-partum panic. But one of her most striking moments is wordless: a frenzied dance in her wedding dress, expressing alone what she cannot say to anyone else in her life.

A superb supporting cast covers multiple roles, including Jodie McNee as a cheeky fisherwoman trying to navigate her girlfriend's complex defences, Paul Hilton as Carol's bewildered husband, and - on press night - Sophia Pettit as an almost spectral child. The company also dresses the central trio like dolls: Carol in scarlet, Anna in blue, Bonnie in neutrals. A rich, innovative and gripping piece that lingers long after its conclusion.

Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court until 8 July

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey

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