Review: The Stock Da’Wa, Hampstead Downstairs

“What is the real truth of our lives?”

The Stock Da’Wa by David Eldridge was perhaps a surprising choice for me to go to given how strongly I reacted against his other play in London at the moment, The Knot of the Heart at the Almeida, but I do try to keep an open mind and be willing to have it changed. Plus, the downstairs at Hampstead Theatre season has been an interesting mix, featuring another strong cast here and the directorial return of the marvellous Kathy Burke.

Paul, a young heavily bearded man has returned to the village of Stock where he went to school. He’s reunited with his old English teacher Mr Wilson and Joan, the woman who was his unofficial foster mother, at her house and they are surprised to see him, not least because it is the dead of night but also because his nose and shirt is covered in blood. But this is no ordinary reunion, as we soon find out that it is 20 years since Paul was last here and he has changed a lot, there’s unresolved issues around the death of Joan’s son and everyone’s recollections of the past vary slightly on crucial details and are less rose-tinted than fractious and rancorous.

Eldridge is concerned with notions of truth here: Paul’s return is motivated by a desire to tell the truth, albeit 20 years late, to these two people who used to figure so significantly in his life but different people have different perspectives on events that happened and so as secrets are exposed and past revelations uncovered, there’s a constant reassessment needed to ascertain who is really being honest about what happened and why. Against this, is the shocking behaviour, both prior to this meeting and during it, of the radicalised Paul which is slowly revealed to us.

Events play pretty much in real-time, over this long night, and though it wasn’t the longest show, I have to say there were times when I did feel every minute. Eldridge takes a long time to saying what it is he is trying to say, with protracted reveals and countless 80s references which are amusing at first though soon grow tiresome, padding out the running time. But when we’re in the thick of the action, the shifting viewpoints and allegiances become rather intriguing at times, helped no end by a trio of highly intense performances, encouraged by Kathy Burke’s direction.

Ann Mitchell’s vindictive mother-figure crackles with repressed feeling and needle sharp emotion, Robin Soans’ slippery gay former teacher plays with a wonderful ambiguity that leaves one never quite sure with this character and Gary Shelford’s forthrightness as the returning visitor who is adamant that his version of the truth is one that must be shared has a huge physical presence which dominates the Michael Frayn space. Burke uses the space well around the central dinner table, but there were a couple of curious choices that although small, bugged the hell out of us: why didn’t Soans’ character go and put a dressing gown on over his boxers instead of leaving himself repeatedly exposed to jokes and [minor spoiler alert] when his hands were covered in blood, why didn’t he clean them, especially since designer Paul Wills had gone to the expense of putting in a fully working tap!

The Stock Da’Wa thus gained a much better reception than The Knot of the Heart, and had Eldridge cut another 20 minutes or so from it and run straight through without an interval, I might even have gone so far as to recommend it! As for the title, at the risk of giving plot points away, a da’wa is a Muslim word that means a summons…

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Programme cost: free cast sheet available
Booking until 14th May

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