Review: Like A Fishbone, Bush Theatre

“How could there be a meaning there?!”

The timing of an opening of a new show is everything: later this week I’m going to the Tricycle to see Then and Now, their Women and Politics multi-part extravaganza at a time when the new cabinet has fewer women than ever so it feels even more appropriate. Such immediate relevance can be a double-edged sword though as Like A Fishbone, the new play by Anthony Weigh opening at the Bush Theatre about the memorialisation of a school shooting, comes less than a week after the tragic events in West Cumbria and whilst not directly connected, there were moments when it felt really quite close to the bone.

Like A Fishbone takes its title from the Robert Lowell poem For the Union Dead referring to the memorial for the war dead in Boston as this play examines what is appropriate when it comes to dealing with the legacy of a tragic event. A leading architect has been commissioned to create a memorial for the victims of a terrible crime, all the children of a village murdered in their schoolhouse, and she is preparing to unveil her work to the public. When a blind woman somehow makes her way into the office where the model of the memorial is being kept ready for delivery, the scene is set for a confrontation between the two as it turns out she is the mother of one of the children who died in the attack. They then challenge each other about what constitutes a fitting monument to the dead, what it means to be a mother and the relative merits of clinging onto faith over the stark acceptance of the brutal truth. It’s heavy-hitting stuff, almost claustrophobic in its one room, real-time setting, but genuinely thrilling.

Seeing Deborah Findlay here, after Jenny Galloway in After the Dance last week, means I have now seen each of the women involved in the somewhat unfortunate Madame de Sade and can safely say that they’ve all escaped unscathed! I find Findlay to be one of our most under-rated actresses, equally at home in costume dramas, she is one of the formidable ladies of Cranford remember, as she is in modern dramas, Torchwood, Silent Witness and State of Play come to mind straight off, and it is the latter mode that she is in here. As The Architect, she is all expensive fabrics, statement necklaces and carefully streaked hair as the carefully poised, ultimate career woman.

Findlay’s performance here is by and large stunning: as the dispassionate Architect, obsessed with architecture although we didn’t get to see the poster of Centrepoint(!) and approaching the commission from a pure design point of view with startling results. Her relentless drive to validate the memorial, but almost as importantly the process around it, is utterly believable and the moments when she verbally attacks The Mother for her obstinacy and her faith having regained her equilibrium after the initial shock of the intrusion are just searingly painful to watch. There’s a brilliant natural feel to her delivery of Weigh’s language too, the constant slips between her corporate script about the project (the word stakeholders brings me out in shivers at the best of times) and the emotive language forced out of her by the confrontation.

The last time I saw Sarah Smart was in The Line where she bared her breasts in front of me for what felt like a lifetime so it was quite ironic that her opening scene here was played with her back to me for about 5 minutes. She is excellent though as the working-class Mother, out of place and intimidated at first by The Architect’s grandstanding but slowly unfurling her real strength as she peels back the verbosity and uncovers more about The Architect than she would ever care to admit. The emotional centrepiece of the show is her discovery of the model, seeing her feeling her way through her own village and telling her story of that fateful day is just absolutely harrowing. The confrontation between Findlay and Smart percolates beautifully throughout the show as the balance of power constantly tips between the two, their frequently overlapping dialogue rising to an intense ferocity from time to time as each tries to push the buttons of the other and it really is engrossing to watch. There’s something of the psychological thriller in their battling and a genuine uncertainty about the way things are going to play out.

Elsewhere, Phoebe Waller-Bridge provides some great comic relief as The Intern who pops in and out, overly eager to please her idol and delightfully gauche in her interactions with The Mother, nailing perfectly the unease that people have when newly coming into contact with someone with a disability. Lucy Osborne’s design has a brilliant conceit which I am going to spoil here, so if you want to be surprised, then skip to the next paragraph now. The play takes place in a single room but they’ve built a false wall complete with windows into the theatre which provides the opportunity to create effective illusion of rain falling outside.

Like A Fishbone is a fascinating look at the choices people make in order to continue their daily existence even in the face of unimaginable tragedy, the falsehoods we must entertain to keep the truth from overwhelming us. It’s also great to see a play that focuses entirely on women and the different ways they interact and speak to each other, without there being any anti-men subtext, feminine rather than feminist. It was possibly less successful on the critique of architecture side (the subtitle on the playtext describes it as “an argument and an architectural model”) as that discussion felt peripheral to the main thrust of the show and resultantly not that well integrated. Still, this was but a minor quibble. If you like to be challenged a bit by your theatre then I can highly recommend this, there is some very fine intense acting on display here and an intriguing, twisty piece of drama.

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50

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