“It’s not random, it’s not prying; it’s considered and planned”
Taking inspiration from the infamous Baby P case and his own experiences as a full-time social worker, Chris Lee’s play Shallow Slumber makes for brutal but compassionately compelling theatre. Played out in traverse in the intimacy of the Soho Theatre Upstairs, the relationship between Dawn, a young first-time mother, and Moira, her well-meaning social worker is traced out over three encounters spread over a number of years, seeking to explore the lives, motivations and issues that lie behind the hysterical headlines that often accompany accounts of child abuse.
Lee chooses to tell his story in reverse. So we open with Dawn making an unexpected visit to Moira’s house and both dealing with the aftermath of a horrific event which has had major repercussions on both their lives, and then we cycle back through another key encounter to their first meeting as Dawn reluctantly submits to the first intervention from Social Services. Inbetween these key scenes are two short monologues that add a little more context to these characters as we discover a little more about them. But the playwright doesn’t give us an easy ride, as if there could be such a thing with such a subject, by employing a measure of ambiguity throughout.
Where the strength of Shallow Slumber lies though is in the interrogation of both parties equally: there’s no stereotypes here of feckless parents or interfering social workers but rather two complex, multi-layered characters with flaws and emotions who demonstrate that this is a most complicated world in which there are no easy answers, or indeed any answers at all sometimes. Some may feel a little frustrated at the lack of resolution to many of the questions raised within, but to my mind the fact that much is left unspoken makes it immeasurably more powerful and deeply affecting. As these two women interact, probe, spar, question and quarrel, we see the balance of power shift time and time again.
Supporting Wall’s production is given extra weight by pitch-perfect casting too, picking my Best Supporting Actress from last year, who excelled in both Othello and The Village Bike. Alexandra Gilbreath simply excels as social worker Moira, the way her good-natured but firm idealism is worn down by the most horrendous of circumstances is all the more devastating for being played in reverse. And Amy Cudden breathes shocking, pointed life into Dawn, a young woman unprepared for the harsh realities of life, though possessed of a certain devious intelligence that enables her to manipulate her way through life, lashing out when frustrated but perceptive enough to see the consequences of her actions too. Cudden deals well too with the sometimes over-written part, Dawn is occasionally blessed with extraordinary acuity which doesn’t always ring true but there’s a deeply emotional heart at the root of this performance that makes it something special.
Shallow Slumber is never easy to watch. A mordant vein of humour and a great sense of compassion alleviate proceedings somewhat, but there’s no hiding the brutality of the matter at hand – the tears running down Gilbreath’s face during the final moments were matched by several other audience members and the ugliness of the finale makes some sense of the lack of dramatic tidiness – it would feel wrong to try and provide some pat explanation for this. But make no mistake, this is interesting new writing given vibrant, haunting life by some superlative acting and clear-sighted direction from Mary Nighy which will linger long in the mind.