BWW Review: TORN, Royal Court Theatre, 13 September 2016
Family is the ideal, the necessity, the burden and the war zone of Nathaniel Martello-White's intricate new play, alternately elusive and confrontational. It's group therapy - Ultz provides the community hall plastic chairs and tea table - with no safeguards, where familial secrets are not just teased out but wrenched, kicking and screaming, to the surface.
Angel has brought them together to address their communal irresponsibility: her mother (known as 1st Twin), brother, cousin, aunts, dad, and the spirit of the matriarch, Nanny. Angel claims something terrible happened to her as a child - "It happened" is her accusatory first line - and that it, and she, were hidden away. Kin before truth.
The morass of intergenerational relationships is often hard to follow, though characters address one another and define themselves by those roles - mother, child, sibling. But that complexity feels deliberate, a reflection of a clan whose bonds often reform, and who deny their relations when it suits them.
Martello-White's poetic, non-linear piece has no scene breaks, so we wander in and out of the past and alternative perspectives on it. Angel is trapped there, living as much in her trauma as she does in the present, and the structure underlines the fact that family dynamics are decades in the making - and a messy web to untangle.
However, the overlapping dialogue and deliberate disorder can be frustrating to follow, and conversely Martello-White's characters frequently snap into self-aware, overly articulated therapy speak, bluntly diagnosing their own conditions and shortcomings. It conflicts with the cast's naturalistic performances, and means we're handed chunks of information, rather than being able to tease it out ourselves from stylistic but still legible drama.
It's also something of an issues bingo piece, with everything from abuse (with a nod to Savile), poverty and alcoholism to race, homophobia and post-natal depression. The most developed thread concerns Angel's neglectful mother marrying a white man and disowning her "black sheep" children; the subsequent white offspring "look fantastic with the new house" in the suburbs. Martello-White is thoughtful on the nuances of a matriarchal set-up, and the isolation of being mixed-race - resented by both white and black communities - chillingly paralleled with slavery.
He also interrogates various forms of parenting. The rationale for neglecting Angel is that the entire working-class family succeeds if at least one child has a better life than they did, and here the smart money is on her feted artist cousin, who has made it all the way to Hampstead. Angel poses a risk, so is bundled off to her childless aunt, where she almost voices her trauma, but the yearning for parental connection wins the silence of a confused, suffering 10-year-old.
Richard Twyman's ascetic staging places laser focus on the cast: there is, quite literally, nowhere to hide. Thankfully, he draws strong turns from Indre Ove as the ruthless survivor of a mother, the heart-wrenching Adelle Leonce's distressed Angel, Osy Ikhile's perceptive cousin, Franc Ashman and Lorna Brown as the slippery aunts, James Hillier's creepy stepfather, and Jamael Westman as the seething brother, rendered impotent by conflicting loyalties.
It's somewhat overwrought, with shouting matches verging on repetitive, though leavened with grim wit - Aunt L is accused of subversion because she let the children watch Rocky Horror and Prince - and there's incisive commentary on denial, racial politics and our failure to communicate. Thought-provoking and compelling, but the jam-packed play, like its trapped family, could do with more breathing space.
Torn is at the Royal Court Theatre until 15 October
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks