“Sometimes we have to take care of things we’re frightened of”
After winning London Theatre of the Year in The Stage’s awards and the considerable success of The Kitchen Sink before Christmas, expectations are certainly riding high at the Bush Theatre as Josie Rourke’s final season as Artistic Director continues. Our New Girl is a play by Nancy Harris, who’s also playing at the Gate with her Kreutzer Sonata, which on first glance bears similarities to Tom Wells’ play as it is set largely in a kitchen, though we soon come to see we’re in a whole other universe (with better plumbing).
Hazel has given up her high-flying career as a top lawyer to run an olive oil importing business from home to allow her to spend more time at home with son Daniel and an imminent new arrival; her plastic surgeon husband Richard is away in Haiti on a charitable mission and has engaged Annie, an Irish nanny to help out around the house. But the picture-perfect suburban lifestyle is showing severe cracks: no-one is buying olive oil, Daniel is something of a problem child to say the least and Richard neglected to tell Hazel about the fact that he was getting professional help for her. That the nanny is seemingly perfect at her job only raises Hazel’s hackles further and as things begin to take a more sinister turn, it seems her suspicions may not be entirely baseless.
Our New Girl actually emerges as quite a disturbing play, unafraid to attack what it sees as the vast hypocrisy of the liberal upper middle classes and their shocking approach to parenthood. On the face of it, this family seem to have everything but from the off we see just how disquieted young Daniel is – an assured turn from Jonathan Teale, who shares the role with Jude Willoughby – and how sterile the showroom-fresh kitchen is. Kate Fleetwood’s Hazel is clearly stressed, something beyond the fact she’s heavily pregnant, and her reluctance to allow another woman – even one ostensibly there to help out – into her domestic sphere, even unsuited as she is to it, speaks volumes as to the pressures she feels. These are cruelly, and cleverly exposed by Harris as Annie works her way through a list of questions about Daniel in order to ‘get to know him’ and sees how problematic his behaviour is.
But it is when intrepid Richard returns from Haiti that we begin to see how twisted the family dynamic is. He seems more interested in the press attention his good work is generating, especially as he is being venerated as a kind of handsome daredevil explorer – Mark Bazeley exuding an ideal laconic charm – and releasing him from his humdrum everyday work. And as Annie reveals herself as the cuckoo in this nest, horrendous selfishness rises to the fore and vicious, earth-shattering, lies are told. This shift in tone is well-executed as Richard’s faintly patronising tone gains a sharper edge and Denise Gough’s Annie reveals how rough she is willing is play. And at the heart of it, Fleetwood is excellent – wryly amusing even when at her most frazzled and drawing us into the heart of her dilemma, as unpalatable as it may seem.
Morgan Large’s set design is placed on a wide, shallow thrust which presents its own interesting challenges with the seating, and I’d try to avoid sitting at a diagonal to the corners of the stage as Gwinner quite frequently places her actors in these corners with their backs to the audience, thus the blocking meant a couple of scenes were completely lost to someone’s back. Gwinner could have done with introducing a bit more movement in general to the whole piece as some scenes did feel a little static, but overall this is highly competent work.
There are moments when the play doesn’t seem entirely original in its premise, or the attitudes of its characters, but these are short-lived as Harris subverts and twists expectations into bravely unlikeable places – you may covet their kitchen, but you wouldn’t want to know any of these people. Consequently it lacks the heart that made The Kitchen Sink so unmissable but this is its own strange beast and sure to be another success for the Bush.