First things first: if you've ever worried about
how a history of depression or suicide in your family could affect you or your
children, DO NOT go and watch
Reaction will, without doubt, be linked directly to closeness of the subject.
There's no metaphor in the title of Alice Birch's new play – with levels of bleakness that wouldn't be out of place in the programme for the Jerwood Upstairs – as for two long, tough, interval free hours, it pertains to dissect the parts that lead a person to want nothing other than to be free of life. Not the arguably more 'understandable' parts or reasons (though never truly understandable) that we are likely to look to for answers when suicide enters our life – a job loss, money worries, relationship breakdowns, the usual soap opera themes – but the genetic imbalance that makes it impossible to understand how anyone could actually bear to exist.
Birch highlights the ongoing impact by showing us three generations of women in one family – Carol, a lonely seventies housewife, daughter Anna, seeking comfort in narcotics today, and granddaughter Bonnie, a doctor in our near future, who relates more easily to the factual nature of medicine than she does with the less tangible emotions and actions of people The stage – which has the look of a rundown public toilet – is split into thirds so we watch their three timelines running concurrently though (aside from the occasional referential glance to underline the impact of actions or memories) they never interact. But whilst they have specific micro-dramas of their own (that could be filed as 'understandable') things just happen – mainly around them – that happen to most of us. It's the lack of ability they have to care, as well as the knowledge of Carol's initial suicide, that makes the cycle self-perpetuating.
Which also means that it takes some energy to keep watching – there are lots of nice small scenes but it's the overall effect that is important here and so there are few changes in pace to take us up or down. We need to stay for the same journey that tires them and there's a lot of shifting and sighing in the long onstage set changes as we ready ourselves for another dollop of helplessness to come.
It's clearly the cleverness of the writing and the construct, rather than any dramatic reveals, that show that these women feel out of place in a world that is happening around them. Across the times, the supporting cast play different characters to the different women but each grouping of roles has a similar purpose or impact to each. There are phrases and situations that are repeated, scenes that cut across each other or run concurrently and occasional words that literally overlap. It feels quite clever and fresh, though I have to admit that at times I wanted some of them to shut up just so I knew where to focus. I ended up staring down at my feet, in an attempt to retain audible clarity when the visual clarity evaded me.
Even those onset changes are done deliberately, methodically and with a sense of purpose by the same supporting cast who bring on props and strip and redress the women with very fluid, almost balletic movements, adding to the feeling that life just runs its own course around you until you can finally be released from its common mundanity. As the audience, we can't escape a moment – which is probably the point.
The rite – and expectation – of women to procreate is also at play, though this feels like just one of the things life forces on them rather than a key theme. There's suggestion that women have to have children or be seen as failures, that doing so should be in and of itself a cause for happiness. And it raises the question of whether a woman with a possibility genetic problem is wrong to knowingly pass this on to someone else by giving birth. It's an interesting and probably very divisive argument but, apart from the ending moments' focus, is dialled up and down at various times as to make it feel like a point to be made that is too big to sit within the larger point being made here.
It's undoubtedly a challenge to create characters when the whole point is that they lack passion, but Hattie Morahan, Kate O'Flynn and Adelle Launce all give very thoughtful and painfully real performances of the protagonists – though O'Flynn's somewhat adenoidal always questioning tonality may be to a particular taste. And it's hard to flaw any of the supports who seem resolutely deeply invested, whether the role is large, small or even when partaking in the scene and costume changes.
Whilst accepting the role of theatre isn't to give a fully rounded argument on all sides on every subject, showing the world of depression as having no solution or help available to better it, feels a little irresponsible to me, especially as we now try and spread the message that people should talk about their own illness in order to get help. Reaction will, without doubt, be linked directly to closeness of the subject. For some, this will be seen as, at times, movingly acted, cleverly written and smartly directed. For others, who suffer and whose family have suffered before them, two hours could well lead to any eradication of hope they may cling on to. And that makes me rather uncomfortable and worried.