BWW Review: CATERPILLAR, Theatre503
1am - Simon raps hard on the door and, eventually, Claire answers. Though it's the weekend of the annual Birdman contest, the guesthouse is closed, but Simon, all Oirish charm, talks his way in, £50 in crisp tenners helping his cause, if hardly improving Claire's mood.
Next morning, Claire's mother, Maeve, bouncing with bonhomie, fusses over Simon like he's the son she never had, but, with a stroke freezing her left side, she can't do all she once did. But who is the mysterious Emmie for whom Simon is
jumping flying? Why is Claire so reluctant to leave for her four-year-old's birthday party? And why is Maeve still so coddled in a dressing gown at midday?
Seaside towns are sites of transgression - old school dirty weekends, crazy architecture, forbidden skin on show - so it's no wonder that Icarus's famous challenge to the gods is attempted anew annually, man's conquering of gravity itself staged above a roiling sea.
Alison Carr's Caterpillar captures that mood of sordid otherness as the three characters circle each other, each needing something another has, each damaged by the past, each seeking their own flight from it.
The nature of love is its unifying theme. A parent loves a child, but (believe me) it's a love that can leave you hollowed out, emotionally and physically. A daughter loves a mother, but how can a carapace of stubborn independence be penetrated, especially with a gnawing jealousy that the mother loves her other daughter and son-in-law rather more? A man loves a dead girlfriend - or, maybe, just the idea of a dead girlfriend. And, if he does, does it matter?
Judith Amsenga provides the emotional centre of the play, giving us a Claire who hides her trauma at her inability to live up to normative ideals of motherhood behind a busyness, displacement activity available round the clock from her incapacitated mother and even at a cafe up the road where she "helps out".
Tricia Kelly starts as a Babs Windsorish "seen-it-all-luv" landlady, but she has plenty to hide too, her weaknesses revealed through her steely insistence that all will be well, all the time knowing that it isn't and it won't. Her physical presence is half frozen and, through her denial of her reality, so too is her emotional life.
Alan Mahon changes from a bumbling "Father Dougal" stock Dublin lad to a man whose inability to process communication with women leads him to impulsive behaviours and an overwhelming urge to "rescue" them. He may be more kind, and certainly more polite than the two women, but his pathological desire to control others emerges soon enough - his Never Never Land as imaginary as Peter Pan's, his compulsion to "save" women as real.
The play has elements of a black comedy, elements of a soap operaish tragedy and elements of a State Of The Nation piece about the mental health crisis, much of which is supported by Holly Pigott's beautifully observed set, a room on the edge of toppling into seediness - like the people it accommodates.
That said, it's hard work being cooped up with such neurotic (edging towards psychotic) individuals for the two hours running time of the production - I suspect it's a patience that one loses the older one gets. Carr's writing has much to commend it - not least its boldness in taking on contemporary issues head on - but there's a relentless spiralling in the plotting that dragged me down like a flyer in a penguin suit leaping from Southend Pier.